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The Fungus Among Us

February 9, 2013

My alma mater offers a class called “Magical Mushrooms, Mischievous Molds” that I still wish I took. Unfortunately, there was no way to fit all of my required and desired classes into a reasonable time period, so it fell by the wayside. Nonetheless, mushrooms and fungi in general continue to fascinate me. Through their act of decomposition, they make life on earth possible. A system of a single fungus is the world’s largest organism, and possibly one of the oldest. Fungus can even clean up ecosystems contaminated by petroleum and other toxic waste!

So when I heard you could grow edible mushrooms at home, I was immediately interested. However, I was also cautious. How would you know what you grew was the right, and (more importantly) non-poisonous, mushroom? It’s one thing to grow mushrooms for soil health, but it’s another to eat them. When even the mushroom website explicitly says, “If in doubt, throw the mushroom out!” you know it’s not something to mess around with.

But I found a compromise that satisfied my nervousness – growing mushrooms in my not-so-wild living room. I got the idea from Treehugger’s Holiday Gift Guide, which I tend to use to build my own Christmas list rather than get ideas for anyone else. They featured this kit that allows you to grow pearl oyster mushrooms in recycled coffee grounds. Reading my list, Chris rejected that kit, declaring that “oyster mushrooms are terrible.” However, he was totally into growing mushrooms if we could find a different kit.

Enter Fungi Perfecti. Mycologist Paul Stamets, who owns the company, is most famous for the TED Talk “Six Ways Mushrooms Can Save the World.” Needless to say, Stamets is really into fungi. The company carries a lot of different starter kits, including ones that grow shiitake, blue oyster, enokitake (which I’ve never even heard of), lion’s mane, and pioppino mushrooms. And that’s just the indoor ones! As some of the sets are harder to grow than others, we chose the shiitake kit, both because it’s relatively easy to grow and we know how to cook them. (If you want to get really fancy, you can also get a shiitake mushroom log from Williams and Sonoma.)

While the shipping fees made it rather more expensive than just buying mushrooms at the store, the $25 base price seemed reasonable for a fun science experiment. We received our package a couple weeks ago, which came with a patch of sterilized sawdust colonized with shiitake spawn and simple instructions. The patch looked vaguely like bread gone horribly wrong – a white, squishy box with wrinkled skin.

Mushroom patch in packaging

The mushroom patch right out of the box.

As per the instructions, we put it in the fridge to rest for a few days, and then a few days more because I was on travel and didn’t get around to preparing it. We then soaked it in unchlorinated tap water to start the growing process. You can use rain or well water, but we didn’t have any on-hand and I prefer to keep the patch as sterile as possible. So we boiled tap water and let it sit to remove the chlorine instead. (The chlorine added to tap water will kill the fungus spores.)

Then, I put the patch in a baking dish, fitted the “humidity tent” over the top (a plastic bag with holes in it), placed it in a corner of our living room, and let nature do its work. Of course, nature needs a little help. Because mushrooms are pretty moisture-greedy, you have to mist the patch two to four times a day. I was originally going to keep the patch in the basement, but then Chris pointed out that I would never remember to go down there that often.

After only a few days, tiny mushrooms began emerging. Thankfully, they were quite distinctively shiitake. (Invading mushrooms would be extremely improbable considering the care the company takes to ensure the patch is sterile and its tough skin, but nonetheless, it was reassuring.) Once one of them got big enough to eat, Chris cut it off, chopped it up, and sauteed it. I haven’t had any yet, but his lack of immediate death or any sign of illness whatsoever is encouraging.

Growing mushrooms from a patch

Mushrooms!

However, once the mushrooms grew to a certain size, the humidity tent no longer fit over them and the whole thing started drying out. Despite the D.C. region’s swamp-like humidity, our living room doesn’t actually reach the 85 to 95 percent humidity the mushrooms need.

Because the mushrooms were drying out and no more were growing, we harvested them today. So far, it looks like our little science experiment has gone pretty well. We got a pretty good crop for the first round of growing.

Harvested mushrooms and mushroom patch

The mushrooms and the patch post-harvesting.

Next, I’m going to put the tent back on and see if any more will grow once we increase the humidity. If not, the instructions say to dry it out, resoak it, and then restart the whole process. After we go through the cycle four or five times, we can break up the patch and use it to inoculate a wooden log. However, the instructions do explicitly say that because other mushrooms may invade your log, you may not end up with the mushrooms you intended. Unlike the indoor mushrooms, it warns that you shouldn’t eat them unless you are absolutely sure they’re shiitakes. I won’t be taking that chance, but I’m hoping we can get them growing anyway. It’s good for the soil and our yard’s mini-ecosystem.

Next up, mushroom quiche!

Have you thought about growing or hunting for mushrooms?

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. February 9, 2013 5:09 pm

    Maybe you might have to create a plastic bag tent greenhouse to achieve that mushroom humidity.

    I know someone at work who does go mushroom hunting as a hobby. He can recognize about 10 different edible wild mushrooms. He said you can smell the difference. And keep in mind he is picking mushrooms at the Rocky Mtn. foothills, not on the West Coast where it’s mushroom picking heaven.

    • March 2, 2013 6:30 pm

      We had the humidity before, but we had to take the plastic bag off when the mushrooms starting growing too big for it. I know someone who has been mushroom hunting a couple of times, but he hasn’t brought me along yet!

  2. March 2, 2013 5:19 pm

    I’ve harvested wild mushrooms once, with a guide, in woodland in the west of Ireland. We got some beautifully flavoursome ones.

    TRiG.

    • March 2, 2013 6:38 pm

      That sounds awesome. The western part of Ireland is really beautiful and I’d imagine would have great wild gathering. What county was it in?

      • March 3, 2013 3:39 pm

        Mayo. I can’t recall exactly where (it was a few years ago, with my parents). Somewhere in the vicinity of Castlebar, I think. A wood by a small lake (not that this narrows it down much). The chap who guided us wrote a nature column for a few newspapers. We stayed a night with him and his wife. I think my parents are still in touch with them.

        TRiG.

      • March 3, 2013 4:33 pm

        Mayo is harshly beautiful, so I’m sure it was great. It was annoying to get to, but kind of wonderful being a tourist there because it’s so unvisited in comparison to other areas. But I’m sure you’ve been all over, actually being from the country.

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