As more and more folks turn to growing mushrooms, one thing that often bewilders new growers is the amount of choice offered by online vendors when it comes to strains, cultivars, or even different species. Whether it’s Golden Teachers, B+, or Penis Envy, for those getting started there’s a lot to take in and understand for those without a degree in mycology. Add to this some of the wilder claims from the more “marketing-focused” vendors around variations in effects like euphoria, introspection, or induced spiritual epiphanies, and it’s easy to see why many new growers can often be faced with decision paralysis when choosing which spores to get started with. In this article we’ll do our best to simplify the science and demystify the marketing, helping you make the best informed choice you possibly can, and answer the question, “what’s in a strain name?”
Golden Teachers: Choosing Which Kind of Spores to Grow
The first challenge around choosing which spores to grow is understanding the difference between terms like species, strain, and cultivar. These terms, along with others like variety and isolate, often get thrown around interchangeably by some vendors and those with less experience, but actually have pretty precise definitions.
The easiest of these to understand is species. Species are distinct genetic lineages that usually cannot interbreed and, although there are exceptions to the interbreeding rule that give us hybrids like the liger (lion + tiger) or the mule (horse + donkey), we’re not currently aware of any hybrids of psychedelic mushroom species. Most of our current understanding of the differences between species are related to their specific genetic composition, which can be determined in the lab and used to make comparisons between the degree of genetic similarity between species. However even at a species level, there’s still lots to learn about genetics and potency, with reclassifications of species names or conflicting reports on alkaloid content still appearing in the literature.
When spore shopping it’s always helpful to first look for the Latin name, which will usually be Psilocybe cubensis, the most commonly cultivated magic mushroom. For the Latin naming system, the format goes genus (e.g. Psilocybe) followed by species (e.g. cubensis). If you’re looking at spores and the Latin names are different, then you know you have separate species. Remember, just as you could never cross a fly with a human (sorry, David Cronenberg), you couldn’t naturally cross Psilocybe cubensis with Psilocybe mexicana—though if you manage to prove us wrong, please publish your results in your nearest scientific journal!
Once we move beyond species, our grip on knowledge and certainty begins to loosen slightly. Terms like strain and variety are concepts that even modern day scientists argue over, with each discipline of biology having their own preferred definitions. On top of this, some vendors add to the confusion by straight-up inventing new strains and cultivars without properly explaining why they’re so distinct. Generally speaking though, strains should all originate from the same species (usually Psilocybe cubensis) and can interbreed freely. A good example of this is the deliberate interbreeding of the strains Penis Envy and B+, which gave rise to the Tidalwave strain, noted for winning the April 2021 Oakland Hyphae Psilocybin Cup (but more on this later). Deliberate interbreeding of strains by skilled growers can give rise to albino and sporeless versions of Psilocybe cubensis, among other mutations. It’s important to point out here that a truly distinct strain should display stable characteristics that can be reproduced in every grow project. Just because you grew a funky looking shroom doesn’t mean you’ve really isolated a new strain, unless you can prove that you can grow the same characteristics repeatedly. This is why strains can only really be maintained through cloning: Once you take the spores from a mushroom and grow these up, you shake up the bag of genetics and the mycelium you pull out may no longer be identical to the parent mushroom it came from.
This brings us nicely to cultivars, short for “cultivated variety.” Rather than being a genetically identical clone, these are usually grown from spores. As each individual spore contains a random mix of half the parent mushroom’s genetic material, any mycelium produced from the spores of a defined strain will develop their own distinct genetic characteristics. Repeat this process enough times, taking spores from each successful grow in turn, and your mushroom genetics can “drift” away far enough that the defined characteristics of the original strain may end up being lost. This isn’t always a bad thing, and can give rise to new and interesting mutations when you feel like growing mushrooms is getting boring (though it’s not happened to us yet!). It is possible to stabilize cultivars through multiple rounds of selective breeding, by taking spores from each generation and deliberately selecting for specific characteristics such as growth rate, substrate preference, and with enough testing, even potency. However, keep in mind that unlike true strains that have been grown through cloning, cultivars will usually show more variation between generations.
Golden Teacher Mushrooms—Strain, Cultivar, Variety, Species—What’s the Impact on Potency?
How does all this affect potency?
Although breeding unique growth characteristics into your mushrooms might look pretty, what most shroom-folk tend to be interested in is potency. It’s important to point out here that genetic characteristics tend to be independent of each other, so while some growers might tell you that more potent mushroom strains are always albino, there’s currently not any evidence that this is true.
When it comes to species, the little we know about differences in potency (not only concentration of psilocybin, but of other alkaloids, as well) comes from the small amount of early scientific studies that have been added to by more modern research as renewed interest in psychedelics has grown. It’s thanks to this data that we can say with a fairly high degree of certainty that Psilocybe azurescens is one of the most potent naturally-occurring species currently known. In addition, scientific data has compared wild and cultivated species, and shown that potency can vary by a factor of four and ten respectively.
Until recently very little was known about potency between strains. Many mushroom connoisseurs stated that Penis Envy was one of the most potent strains, but this was from anecdotal self-experimentation with no research grade analytical data to back it up. However in April 2021, the mushroom community’s understanding of stain potency took a huge step forward, thanks to Reggie and his team of scientists at Oakland Hyphae. The team put on the first “Psilocybin Cup,” a community-led citizen science approach to quantifying psilocybin and psilocin in over 60 strains supplied by growers. The findings are relatively preliminary, but their methods are strong and add important data to back up anecdotal potency claims. Across all the strains submitted, psilocybin content ranged from as low as 0.14 percent, up to 2.26 percent dry weight in the winning Tidalwave strain (TW2) grown by Magic Myco. Enough samples were submitted that some general potency trends between strains have started to emerge, with average potency shown in the graph below. If you need a little more help interpreting this, the number of samples collected for each strain are shown next to the strain names along the bottom, and the little line above each bar gives an idea of how variable the potency measurements are for each strain.
With information like this just coming out, our understanding of potency between strains still has a long way to go, but open source-data from teams like Oakland Hyphae are a great resource for both new and experienced growers.
Golden Cap Mushrooms: Growing Your Own
So what does all this mean if you’re looking to pick spores to start a grow project of your own? Hopefully this article will help inform you of what to consider when picking a strain or species to start with. If you’re just starting out, sticking with any Psilocybe cubensis strain is a good choice, as most are easy to grow and have similar cultivation requirements (like temperature, humidity, and light). If you’re looking for potency, resources like those put out by Oakland Hyphae can tell you which strains will give you more bang for your buck, though be aware that super potent mushrooms can be harder to dose and could give you more than you bargained for. When shopping around, make sure you’re selecting trusted vendors with good reviews, and support those who can verify that the strains/cultivars they’re selling are legit!
Read: How To Grow Mushrooms
One of the biggest problems with mushroom strains, much like with cannabis, is knowing that you’re really getting what you paid for. As strain is a bit more of a fuzzy concept, there’s no tried and tested way to guarantee your Golden Teachers aren’t actually Mazatapec, or your B+ aren’t actually Ecuadorians. With unique looking strains like Penis Envy it’s a little easier, but ultimately strain is usually applied a little subjectively, and mushroom appearance can vary wildly depending on growing conditions. This is why if you’re not shopping for potency it’s often helpful to just pick based on a feeling, rather than scouring the internet and worrying endlessly if you’re making the right choice.
If you’re a more experienced grower, you can try other species like Psilocybe mexicana, Panaelous cyanescens, or any of the many wood loving Psilocybes, as each has their own unique challenges in terms of growth parameters. Just keep in mind if you’re shopping off the Psilocybe cubensis menu, more exotic species might be harder to find and unscrupulous vendors might send you the wrong species deliberately or by mistake. As always, look at reviews and support the vendors who’ve earned your trust. So while Golden Teachers do exist, as with most things mycological, once you scratch the surface you realize there’s a lot more to understand when it comes to picking out Psilocybe cubensis strains!