Mushrooms in the Classroom


A lot has happened in our mushroom world since my last post back in August. Rarely a day goes by without a new puzzle to figure out on the farm. It’s hard and the hours are long, but the thrill of watching our babies grow and watching a chef’s eyes light up after opening a case of our mushrooms makes me 100% sure I’m in the right business. In future posts, I want to go into the farm in more detail, but for now I wanted to report on what’s going on at Saul High School.

Saul’s vertical design project this year was coined “Mycelium Suites” and is a 4-story mushroom motel replete with light, humidification and air exchange. Daily misting and cleaning services included.

Mycelium Suites. Mush Rooms Available

Much like the butcher who owned the apartment in Delicatessen, (***SPOILER ALERT***), we cook our tenants up after a short stay.

Miss McAtamney’s 2014-2015 seniors have done an excellent job of misting, re-filling the tank, and cleaning evidenced by the gargantuan King Trumpets we harvested last Friday. This first flush weighed in at just over one pound which is close to our current average on the farm! We also harvest 1/3 pound of pioppini which prefer high humidity levels best achieved on a large scale. Not bad!

IMG_20150116_210540 IMG_20150116_210817

We harvested, weighed and then got to work making quesadillas.   It was cool to see the students had some cooking skills and everybody ate the mushrooms.  One turned from a mycophobe to a mycophage.

I can’t explain how tasty these mushrooms are.  If you’re having trouble getting mushrooms into your finicky kids’ diets, I would try sauteeing King Trumpets up in butter and salt and adding a tiny bit of brown sugar.  They’ll disappear like candy.


Eating choice mushrooms at their peak of freshness wasn’t the only goal of this project.  Having a fruiting chamber in the classroom gives students a chance to interact with the components of a mushroom farm and learn the basics of mushroom farming.

I’ve blogged about Saul in the past, but I just wanna sing it’s praises once again because it is a treasure of the Philadelphia School District.  Kids get hands on experience on a functioning farm (Henry Got Crops).  They get to operate heavy machinery, design lots of projects, raise animals, hike in Wissahickon Park, sell produce, be a member of FFA.

The status and profitability of the small farm is actively changing thanks to Permaculture and to a growing population of consumers that understands and tastes the difference between factory farmed and locally grown, sustainable produce.  While the average farmer is elderly and largely dependant on chemical companies to extract value from sick land, never has there been a better time to seriously consider farming as a way of living the life you want and the planet wants for you.  Farming doesn’t have to destroy our land.  In fact it can restore and heal environments.

That’s why I’ve been teaching at Saul for 4 years.  We all know that our planet is facing serious issues- too numerous to list here.  Getting our food the right way is essential.  Older generations owe it to the younger generations to provide them the education and tools they need to create the big ideas that will help humanity restore the planet, and farming is way up there.  It’s that simple.  And they’re not going to hatch those big ideas if they’re locked up in a classroom studying textbooks.  A future generation will look back on our public schools, designed to be like factories and jails, and shudder at the thought of all the inately creative beings who lost their creativity and confidence in the power of their minds to change the world.

In 2015, let nature inspire you.  Then inspire someone younger.

class mycelium suites

If you’ve ever thought about raising/growing quality food at home, check out my friend Sarah Gabriel’s series of workshops.  And if you wanna try your hand at growing your own mushrooms, you’re invited to the next Homegrown Workshop Sunday, April 21st.  After Sarah shows how she’s integrated aquaponics, egg-laying hens, bees, compost and kombucha tea into her suburban life, I’ll be demonstrating how to establish a Wine Cap Stropharia bed in your yard or garden, how to grow shitakes from logs and oysters in your house from throwaway materials.  Last I’d heard, there were only 5 spots remaining, and if you order by the end of the day tomorrow (the 7th) you’ll get the early-bird discount of $29 for the whole workshop (this includes a take-home straw oyster kit and I believe, a beautiful scoby).  The early bird gets the worm- in this case it’s a red wiggler happy to turn your kitchen scraps into castings (worm not included, just the poor attempt at humor).

Sarah’s a seriously interesting and curious person and even if you can’t make it to this event and you want to know more about or share your experiences with homesteading, I encourage you to reach her via email at

millcreek woodchips

In other news, the first of the stropharia jute-net spawn (how about we call it stroph-net) is at its new home at Mill Creek farm on 50th and Brown.  Farmers Raina (left), Oriana (middle, did most of the work), and Brianne (right) stand before two rows of asparagus, one of which received a few wheelbarrows of fresh mulberry woodchips which will age in the sun for a week before receiving stroph-net.  This is the first of a bunch of side-by-side comparisons looking at how stropharia can help boost plants.  I don’t expect results until next year when the soil is teaming with stropharia and its allies.

Enjoy the beautiful weather this week, folks.

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”

I used to be an ordinary guy.  But finally, after years of inhaling spore-laden air, handling hundreds of boletes, drinking gallons of chaga and reishi tea, and scarfing dozens of black trumpet omelets, the inevitable has occurred.

Few people have heard of the earthstar forehead blossom, and even fewer know that there exists a pair of earthstar spores nestled in the sulci of the frontal lobes of every homo sapien on the planet.   Once thought of as a relic of Opisthokonta, I assure you it’s not.

When the two earthstar spores germinate, the resulting hyphae begin assembling brain cells into a neuro-mycological network similar to the mycorrhizal mind of Gaia.  When the fruitbody finally bursts from the thinnest point of the skull, visions flood the mind, depicting a fungi-centric utopia on Earth.

Here’s what I saw:

One day we will realize that we need mushrooms to save the world.   We will also realize that Utopia is possible if we work in concert with our fungal allies to restore the planet.

Red Reishi, fungal ally #1 in Chinese Medicine
Like a rotten log yielding its biomass to mycelial enzymes, the broken monetary system will liquidate, feeding the fungal economy and giving rise to an eco-technological revolution.  I saw recycling centers, energy facilities, medical offices, farms, reclaimed forests, and future technologies so far beyond the grasp of my pre-Utopian meat-brain, I don’t have words to describe them.

Cauliflower Mushroom modeling a fully mature neuro-mycological network

A fleeting vision crossed my internal landscape before the trans-dimensional blossom folded back into the glistening mycelial data-bank of dark matter.  The vision was of a small group of people working together to build a mushroom Grow Room at the Henry Got Crops farm and Saul High School in Roxborough, Philadelphia, PA.

Members of the eco-technological revolution holding vigil within the aural field of a chicken mushroom

We will soon be asking you to contribute towards realizing the cornerstone of this vision.  The Grow Room will allow us to:

1: perfect the indoor cultivation of an unavailable gourmet species

2: grow organic mushrooms for local tables

3: vastly improve farm soil while limiting harmful biproducts

4: transform animal feed into nutritional superfood

5: grow medicinals to improve the health of our community

And, most importantly, provide the students a workspace in which they will learn skills necessary to secure the survival and thriving of our species and planet.

Thanks for reading, and stay tuned. Don’t forget to feed those earthstar spores.

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.

Last Friday, Miss Mac’s class and farm interns Nancy, Chris, and Matt teamed up to lay out or new Stropharia beds between rows of broccoli.  We hope that the addition of Stropharia mycelium will accomplish three things in the soil environment of the plant crop.  1: Increased aeration 2: increased water retention 3: increased availability of nutrients.  While Stropharia Rugoso-Annulata is a saprophyte (eats dead stuff) it does well in soils with minimal dead debris.  Therefore, we expect that our rows will begin to proliferate with mycelium, which will then weave through the soil of the adjacent crops.  While the broccoli that is in the ground now will be harvested in late June, before the mycelium will have much of a chance to work its magic, a new crop of Fall broccoli will replace it.  This could be Henry Got Crop’s first bumper crop of monster broccoli crowns.

Here’s what we did.  First, we dug out about 30 feet of trench between broccoli rows.  We then laid out a mixture of hardwood sawdust and wood chips (courtesy of the Farimount Recycling Center).  With the more myceliated side facing down, we placed our colonized cardboard spawn on top of the wood chips.  On top of that went a layer of straw (salt hay, it’s actually reeds but should do just fine), followed by another layer of cardboard spawn and finally a layer of leaves.  The purpose of this final layer is to hold in moisture and also to function as a “casing” layer for the mushrooms.  Some species of mushrooms, Stropharia R.A. included, need a layer of material they don’t fully colonize on top of the main substrate.  This is where the mushrooms fruit, and explains why some mushrooms can be found under areas where leaves or soil are beginning to push up.

Hoping the thunderstorms forecast today knock down a chicken tree or two, not near any houses of course.

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 (  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.

The name of this blog being what it is, you may assume that we’re only interested in the chicken-y qualities of certain mushrooms in the genus Laetiporus.  Given how many delicious and useful mushroom species there are, we found it necessary to delve into a new fungal arena while we are scouring the land for chicken logs.

Meet Stropharia Rugoso-Annulata (the red caps pictured below to the left of the morels).  These particular mushrooms found their way into my belly in the spring of 2010 before I could clone them, so we relied on to supply us with quality spawn to start our patch.

If you haven’t read the post “Changes,” check it out for some info on what Stropharia can be used for on the farm.

On Friday, I was joined by Ms. Mac’s AP Environmental Sciences class at the site of the mushroom garden.  We mixed spawn in with woodchips, sawdust, and a little straw, then filled burlap bags with the mixture to create what Paul Stamets coined “bunker bags.”  Hydrating the substrate was easy.  We dipped the bags into the little stream of spring water which trickles through our fungal sanctuary.

Not the most sterile of procedures, but working outdoors you have the luxury of sometimes getting by  without pasteurizing substrate.  Plus, since King Stropharia mycelium feeds off of microscopic critters, we may have been doing it a favor by not being particularly careful.  When we have a lab at the school, we will then be able to start similar bunker bags with a cloned wild strain of the species and students will try their hands at the art of sterile tissue culturing.  For now, we’re keeping our rustic-style bunker bags under a pile of leaves to protect them from the sun, hold in moisture, and generally insulate them from the elements.  With the hot, dry weather we’ve been having, we’ll have to keep a close eye on them to make sure they don’t dry out.

Stay tuned for more chicken-y blog posts.