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Mushroom Hunting

As we await news from the School District, I figured I would finally post about my experience at Fungi Perfecti’s Mushroom Cultivation Seminar in November.

                                       Jim oyster kit demo                        

I decided to attend the seminar for three reasons- to learn how to run a mushroom farm, to meet my hero Paul Stamets, and to come home with 10 commercial strains (itself worth more than the pricetag of the seminar).  Over two days, I filled a notebook with the kinds of tips that one  accumulates after years of trial and error in the business- invaluable tidbits which will undoubtedly pay off when it comes time to construct and run our facility.  Paul led about half of the lectures- he basically took the material he covers in many of his public addresses and elaborated extensively upon it.  If you’ve been searching for updates on the fantastically important work that Paul and his collaborators have been conducting since Mycelium Running, the seminar is pretty much the only place where you’ll find it, and his presentation is rife with stories- plus if you have any questions, ask Paul himself.

                                           FP blue oysters

The lectures and workshops led by the other mycologists at FP were excellent too.  Jim Gouin and David Sumerlin drew from their extensive knowledge of running both large-scale and small-scale projects, and their presentation style was clearly well-polished..  While the skills practiced in the workshops were definitely geared towards beginners (cloning,spore-swabbing, transferring on agar, inoculating spawn bags, etc.), it was nonetheless useful to see how the masters do it, and I’ve adjusted my practice accordingly.  (Is this post starting to sound like a review?)

                                         FP lions mane and shitake

There were at least four other FP employees working behind the scenes at any given time to make things run smoothly, and they concocted two delicious lunches- is that surprising?  Lunch proved to be a source of new information as well.  For example, cooking lion’s mane in butter and adding some greens at the end really brings out the crab-like taste of the mushroom.  I had a great time schmoozing with fellow cadets over mugs of medicinal tea as we huddled away from the persistent rains between activities.  Although there wasn’t time to talk extensively with everyone, many of those I managed to chat with are doing really interesting things- some had plans to start mushroom farms or to add a mushroom facility to their existing farm.  Even more were simply following their newfound passion for fungi.  One attendee (who also happened to be a recent FP hire- they send all employees through the seminars) writes an excellent blog.  I highly recommend it for those who are into herbalism and natural remedies.

As the seminar came to a close, a rare windstorm blew up and I had a chance to pick Paul’s brain as I shone a cell-phone light under the hood of his car, keeping an ear out for cracking limbs in the vicinity.  No groundbreaking insight into cultivating chicken mushrooms, but it was a treat to talk with the man who owns 40 patents which contain the keys to the survival of our species.

            Amanita Muscaria redcap             polypore WA

I spent the following 5 days trekking around the Olympic Peninsula and other parts of the NW coast.  The rain let up for almost a full day and the sun peeked out as I was foraging parasol mushrooms in Volunteer Park in Seattle.  I saw Duncan Trussell perform two comedy sets (it was great, but really there’s no point in seeing the same comedy set twice in a row- lesson learned), and spent Thanksgiving on the cliffs of  Cannon Beach overlooking the Pacific.  That part of the world is breathtaking and it was tough to leave the grandeur of towering Douglas Firs, but I was happy to dry off in the unseasonably warm Philadelphia weather.

                 delicious parasols- Chlorophyllum Rachodes or similar

                                           Cannon Beach, OR

It wouldn’t be fair to sing the praises of Paul and the folks at FP for their pioneering work in mycology without giving props to another master who’s put his knowledge out there for the sake of helping amateur and start-up mushroom projects.  If you’re interested in getting started with a home mushroom project, I’d highly recommend Marc R. Keith’s super-affordable video series, Let’s Grow Mushrooms!   Then save up for the FP Seminar.

Oh, and check out Amanda Feifer’s blog, Phickle.com, to read about my adventures seeking the wild Kombucha SCOBY and while you’re add it, sign up for her fantastic blog which covers everything fermented!  She also leads occasional workshops in Philly for phermentation phriendly pholks.

                                          scoby?

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The class raised an interesting question: how do you identify a mushroom?  I gave an unsatisfactory answer which involved jargon like “keying out” and “microscopy,” but the honest answer for me, these days, is Google.  I wouldn’t recommend this to someone who’s late for a potluck and spots some ‘not-poisony-looking’ mushrooms on the side of the interstate, but a simple Google-search, or more often a series of increasingly more precise Google-searches is often my first go-to when identifying a new mushroom.

An example of this came after our 2nd Wissahickon hunt of the year.  Students spotted these guys

Having a smart-phone handy in the field can be helpful in deciding whether to bother taking the mystery fungus home with you.  This particular fungoid specimen didn’t exactly call out for the dinner plate, so I left it and searched at home.  Into the searchbar I typed “Brown blob puffball.”  Images.  Nope, those are all lycoperdon.  “Brown Blob Fungus.”  OK, lots of funky looking fungi… aha!  that looks similar to my guy.  Website says it’s a slime mold.  “Brown Blob Slimemold”  ok, there it is again, but it’s pink.  They’re calling it Lycogala epidendrum.  I’ll bet my brown ones are in the same genus, so let’s search “lycogala brown”  ok that’s a hit!  Turns out that it’s the same species, Lycogala epidendrum and its colors are variable.  In all it took about 2 minutes and I knew, with some confidence, that I’d identified this species.

Now, it’s not always nearly this easy.  Within some groups of fungi, the bolete-types and Russula genus to name two, identifying some specimens down to a species takes incredible precision.  Even published mycologists get stumped now and again.  To “key out” a difficult species, you may need various chemical reagents to place on the mushroom, noticing things like what shade of blue it stains, how quickly, which parts stained and for how long.  You may need an experienced nose that can tell the difference between “phenolic” and “fenugreek.”  You may need a microscope to tell whether the spore is slightly amyloid or ellipsoid.  This is tricky business.  If you want to see expert-level identification, I’d recommend joining a local mycological club on a foray.

Blewit!!!!  One of my new favorites.
To someone interested in getting started mushrooming, here’s what I’d recommend:  Get a field guide (and assume some species and edibility info have changed since it was published).  General field guides will cover some of the biggies, but it’s impossible to fit them all into a book, so consider getting a local fungi field-guide, or a more specific guide to, for instance, “Boletes of North America.”  Take lots of spore prints.  If you’re interested in hunting for the table, figure out which choice edibles are in your area and look at lots of images of the mushrooms and the habitat they grow in- this will help train your eye.  You can always start with the “fool-proof four”- giant puffball, chicken of the woods (though remember chicken mushrooms growing on locust, yew and some other poison woods can cause problems), morels, and shaggy mane (alternately chanterelles on some lists).  Don’t believe the “foolproof” part though- some of these things still require a close examination.  And just hunt, hunt, hunt.  Think of it as practice, practice, practice, but fun.  Smell them, bruise them, squish them, tear them apart- whatever it takes to familiarize yourself with a new species.  With enough first-hand experience, you may, eventually, be able to pick a tasty blewit from a patch of poisonous purple cortinarius without a second glance, but for now leave that sort of thing to those with lots of experience.

Hypholoma Fasciculare, the poisonous “Sulphur Tuft,” easily confused for tasty Brick Caps by an inexperienced hunter.

And, I hope I don’t need to mention this but I will:  Do not eat anything you aren’t 100% sure of.  99.99% is not 100% when it’s the difference between a tasty casserole and an agonizing death.  Don’t be scared, just be cautious, and in time you will get it down

Last Friday, Miss McAtamney’s AP Environmental Studies class took an hour-long field trip across the street to Wissahickon park.  Although it was only an hour-long foray, ideal weather conditions meant we didn’t have to travel far for a bounty.   Here’s some of what students found:

Grifola frondosa, a.k.a “hen,” “hen-of-the-woods,” “maitake,” or “sheep’s head.”  Known for it’s delicious earthy flavor and powerful immuno-modulating effects.

Stropharia rugosoannulata a.k.a “king stropharia,” “wine cap,” or “garden giant.”  If you’ve read this blog before, you already know what this one’s about.

Armillaria mellea a.k.a “honey mushroom.”  The largest organisms on the planet are forest-clearing, meadow-creating patches of this tenacious, and delicious, parasite.  An arboretum’s worst enemy but an essential element of a healthy temperate forest.  Makes a nice broth.

Trametes versicolor a.k.a. turkey tail (notice a bird theme?).  Well-studied for its immuno-modulating, chemotherapy-enhancing, and antiviral effects.  Versi-color means you can find it in just about every color.  Individual specimens often display tiny rings of sharply-contrasting hues.

Calvatia cyathiformis a.k.a “purple-spored puffball.”  If you ever played outdoor sports, or better yet, spent hours daydreaming in the outfield, you probably noticed these mushrooms in their mature phase, when they emit clouds of purple “smoke.”  You may have even helped them propagate their genetics by jumping on them while fly-balls whizzed by you unnoticed.  Native Americans used the spores to clot and disinfect wounds.  When harvested in their immature phase, they can be used like tofu, that is if you can resist kicking them through the uprights.

Just like last year, I’m impressed with the students’ curiosity, interest, and keen eye for mushrooms.  We’re going to have a great time this year!

It wouldn’t be early October without some proper fungal eye-candy:

Laetiporus Sulphureus: the yellow-pored chicken mushroom, chicken of the woods, sulphur shelf, namesake of this blog and the reason I don’t get enough sleep.  This beauty was growing on an Ash, which was a first for me, and my nephew, Dustin, spotted her sister 30 feet overhead!

Enteloma abortivum (carpophoroid).  Just because honey mushrooms are forest parasite #1 doesn’t mean they are invulnerable.  What you see is the mycelium of an enteloma parasitizing the mycelium and/or immature fruits of a honey mushroom, converting it into a white blob which takes on the flavor of the victor.

  Hericium americanum: bear tooth.  One of two varieties of hericium we have on the east coast.  If the axon-like tendrils didn’t already give it away, this genus produces compounds which have completely novel effects on the brain.  For one, they stimulate nuerotrophic growth factor which in turn restores myelin (the fatty coating which insulates axons).  If you suffer from Lyme disease or MS, this should be on your dinner plate.  Did I mention they taste sweet, caramelize nicely and have a texture similar to crab?  They’re easy to grow too.


Two modest hauls from last weekend.  Tomatoes and tomatillos courtesy of Henry Got Crops!

I coin this one “lava flow fungus”

Two classes to report on today.  On the 18th, we took a walk through Wissahickon park and found some interesting fungi.  Agrocybe Praecox was out in force, breaking down layers of woodchips with the help of some Coprinellus and deadly Galerinas.  Students showed a real knack for spotting mushrooms and collected a few choice specimens of Stropharia Rugoso-Annulata which I used to make Mushroom Bean soup which we enjoyed as a class last Friday.

On Friday, we took a moment to check on our new Stropharia patch in the broccoli rows.  I was surprised by how well the mycelium had progressed in only two weeks.  The weather has been perfect, wet and not too hot, so the healthy, rhizomorphic mycelium had a chance to leap off of the cardboard spawn and into the straw.  At the rate things are going, we may need to “feed” the patch soon with more straw, manure, and woodchips.  We found a few mushrooms in the field- Panaeolina Foenescii and an Agrocybe which we checked out under the microscope to see the spores and the spore producing cells- basidia- up close.

Only two more classes before the summer.  With our Toshiba grant going in this week, we hope to have a full lab at our disposal for classes next year to take on some more ambitious projects.

And here’s a Ganoderma Tsugae from Wissahickon for your viewing pleasure.  Seems something had already gotten to the tender parts.  The deer in Wissahickon must be enjoying numerous health benefits.

Morel season is upon us in SE PA.  If you’ve never had a fresh morel (not the kind that’s been sitting at the store for days), you have been missing out on one of the greatest delicacies nature offers, and the window for finding them will only be open for another couple weeks at most.  Morchella species form mycorrhizal relationships with trees like elm (dead, before the bark has fallen off), old apple trees, ash, or poplar.  I, however, always find them growing near medium-sized Tree-of-Heaven and spicebush in Fairmount Park.    If there’s one, there are likely to be more around, so get low and scan, looking for the deep grooves amongst the camoflauge of leaf-litter.  I managed to gather a dozen from Fairmount Park last Thursday.  My suspicion is that the deer found most of them before I had a chance.

On Thursday, Miss Mac’s class started a new batch of cardboard spawn using more Stropharia mycelium from a local patch.  The first batch is coming along really well and is just about ready to spawn to bunker bags.  In class, we talked about saprophytes (fungi that eat dead debris), parasites (fungi that eat living tissue) and mycorrhizal species (whose mycelia fuse to plant roots).  Thanks to the mini mushroom-haven that is Fairmount Park, we had a saprophytic and a mycorrhizal species to pass around.  Not everyone was as enthused about the morels as I was!

I wish there was better chicken news to report…  I spent the afternoon Thursday checking stacks of logs in Aston with tree-cutter and jack-of-all-trades Keith Lawless in Aston, PA.  These same stacks had half a dozen chicken logs ripe for the cutting in January, but this time when we showed up with a chainsaw, we were saddened to learn that these logs had met their fate at the teeth of an industrial woodchipper.  With Spring upon us, we’re hoping that a few gusty storms will help a few chicken trees out there find their way to these stacks.

We’re always looking for new sources for logs, so if you know of anyone that works in the tree business please comment below or message me.  Thanks!

Friday was a busy day in the mushroom world.  Miss Mac’s class and I went on a mycelium hunt.  We looked at a tiny seedling sporting mycorrhizae (symbiotic connection of mycelium to plant roots) under the microscope.  We re-hydrated and agitated the stropharia bunker bags, and we watched an excerpt from Planet Earth showing Cordyceps fungi invading a bullet ant colony.  We talked about fungi genetics- how it is that this same species of Cordyceps which exists today could be found in a piece of amber 105-million years old (http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/notrocketscience/tag/cordyceps/).  Meanwhile the genus can produce species which each parasitize a single species of insect when that insect’s population starts to spike.  We pondered the possibility that mycelial networks have sentience.

While the stropharia mycelium in the bags seemed to be colonizing, I still have some doubts as to the potency of the spawn.  I hoped that after the rain we’ve had, wild Stropharia would burst forth and reveal patches of natural mycelium which can be used as spawn.  After I left Saul on Friday I decided to stop by a spot in Fairmount Park where I’ve found King Stropharias (Strophariae?) before, and despite the drought, they were exploding everywhere.  Some fully-flattened and sporulating fruits were easily a foot across!

I gathered up the younger ones, grabbed a few chunks of tenaciously myceliated substrate and took it home to start cardboard spawn.  The idea is pretty simple, take mycelia from substrate or from stem butts (the bottom of the stem, or stipe, of the mushroom which often sports active rhizomorphic mycelia) and spread it across corrugated cardboard which has been pulled apart and soaked.  Once this cardboard is colonized, we can use it to start new bunker bags of this local strain of stropharia.  Keep the mycelium running.

I broiled the caps with some lemon juice, red wine, and a touch of nutmeg.  For most kinds of gourmet mushrooms, I prefer the butter and garlic method, but these aren’t as rich as other mushrooms.  They are delicate in flavor and are better prepared with acidic ingredients.  The end result was a tangy, flavorful treat which some friends and I enjoyed immensely.

Chicken-ier news still to follow… I promise.