THE HIDDEN KINGDOM OF THE BLOBS

Edible Mushrooms

Revelations from the mushroom people

BY JILLIAN STEINBERGER
ILLUSTRATED BY MELISSA GARDEN

 

Illustration by Melissa Garden

Illustration by
Melissa Garden

 

Imagine a subject that branches off in a dendritic pattern, infinitely multiplying and spreading with no beginning, middle, or end. It suggests many connected and intertwined topics, each with endless utopian potential for food, medicine, farming, gardening, ecological vitality, and yet-to-be-discovered uses. Even the Defense Department has invested in research on the subject, and some people think it has potential for saving our planet.

We’re talking about mushrooms.

The Ontology and Epistemology of Mushrooms

These edible fungi we know through our senses: they are meaty, satisfying, and produce that alluring umami taste. They can affect our bodily experience as well. For instance, cordyceps can wake people up in the morning; reishi is regenerative; chaga is anti-inflammatory. Some mushrooms expand consciousness. Many boost immunity and contain anti-oxidants. To our eyes, they look interesting, freaky, fleshy, colorful, and comical. Some are as stunning as icicle formations.

As a horticulturalist, a plant person, I find the subject of mushrooms complex and deep. The plant world seems simple by comparison. Statistics regarding mushrooms inspire awe: According to Fungi.com, the site of famous mycologist Paul Stamets, humans and fungi have nearly half of their DNA in common and are susceptible to many of the same infections. Fungi were among the first organisms to colonize land one billion years ago, long before plants. Fewer than seven percent of the estimated 1.5 million species have been cataloged. Some individual mycelial mats cover more than 20,000 acres. There are discourses on mushrooms in ancient Tibetan texts.

Ken Litchfield, a professor in Merritt College’s landscape horticulture department, who also has been mushroom cultivation committee chair at the San Francisco Mycological Society (MSSF) since the 1990s, offered some thoughts on how plants and mushrooms differ:

“Whether annuals or perennials or woody trees, plants hang around daily, weekly, and monthly in the same place to be recognized, observed, and collected in all body parts, all seasons.” Sagely he continued, “The fungi are the Hidden Kingdom of the Blobs. They naturally stay hidden in the ground or within other organisms, popping up unexpectedly when the conditions are right and then shriveling away again almost before your eyes. Without considerable advanced technology most folks can’t distinguish between species by the appearance of the mycelium, so it usually requires many more years of diligent observation to learn about the complete fungal organism from its mushroom fruiting body than about most plants.” And yet Litchfield is a plant lover.

KEYWORDS
Mycology: The discipline of biology focused on the study of fungi.Fungi: A large group of organisms that includes mushrooms, yeasts, and molds. They comprise a kingdom that is separate from plants, animals, protists, and bacteria.

Mycelium  (Photo by Joe Soeller from the Orinda mycofiltration project)

Mycelium
(Photo by Joe Soeller from the Orinda mycofiltration project)

Mycelium: The part of the fungus that is underground practically circles the earth, running through the ground and through substrates like trees, logs, straw and compost. In structure, they are made of branching, thread-like hyphae. Their colonies can be tiny or as huge as the contiguous mycelial mat found running through a 2,400 acre site (around 1,665 football fields) in eastern Oregon before logging roads were built in that area. Mycologist Paul Stamets calls mycelium “nature’s internet,” a superhighway of information-sharing membranes that govern the flow of essential nutrients around an ecosystem.

Fruiting body: A mushroom is the fruit of the mycelium and the part we eat. It produces spores that disperse and propagate new mushrooms during the sexual phase of a fungus’ life.

Mycorrhizae: This term refers to the mutually beneficial relationships that fungi form with most plant species by attaching to their roots, thereby extending the plants’ reach to water and nutrients.

 

Bay Area and Nor Cal Mushroom Community

I found the East Bay to be a mushroom hotspot full of learned people and enthusiasts. In reaching out to them, I was swept up in a human mycelial process as a few people I contacted reached out to others who reached out to others. To my surprise and wonder, the connections cycled back as nutrition and moisture that fed the fruiting body of this article.

In the mushroom community there is little isolation. People appear jovial and well socialized. They share knowledge on group forays, which are held for survival as much as for fun: You don’t want to poison yourself, so you need others to collaborate on identification (or to carry you out of the forest). Mushroom people like to share their discoveries as well as the meals that follow. They seem humble and grounded: Down on their knees observing fungi in nature, they intermingle with the soil and its microorganisms.

Professional foraging aside, the mushroom community does not appear to be about money. Information is open source. There are lots of clubs, societies, art collectives, and laboratories. The people I talked to imparted information freely, even if it’s how they earn their income.

 

MSSF

At the center of the Bay Area’s mushroom culture is the San Francisco Mycological Society (MSSF). Says Oakland resident and MSSF vice president, David Gardella, “Nonprofit organizations like the MSSF, which are completely volunteer-run by people with a shared passion, are important educational avenues within today’s modern learning systems. Amateurs and professionals alike are helping to evolve the future of mycology within scientific, ecological, and even artistic and theoretical realms. It is an amazing element to be a part of.”

Most of MSSF’s 1,000 members live in San Francisco or the East Bay. Says Gardella, “We have a great East Bay demographic. We don’t let things like Bay Bridge closures get in the way of spreading the mushroom educational fun.” In fact, the East Bay has great species diversity, and educational opportunities abound. (See Resources at end of article.)

Students of Merritt College’s mushroom cultivation class build a straw bale grow hut to inoculate with oyster mushroom spawn.

Students of Merritt College’s mushroom cultivation class build a straw bale grow hut to inoculate with oyster mushroom spawn.

Lisa Leonard of Mother Knows Best Kombucha shares samples at last year

Lisa Leonard of Mother Knows Best Kombucha shares samples at last year”s MSSF Fungus Fair

Merritt College student Holly Bazeley cultivates lion’s mane, Hericium erinaceus, inside a plasctic bag full of  beech tree sawdust and wheat bran.This mushroom is tasty in soups and with albacore tuna sautéed in butter and garlic. (Photo by Holly Bazeley)

Merritt College student Holly Bazeley cultivates lion’s mane, Hericium erinaceus, inside a plasctic bag full of beech tree sawdust and wheat bran.This mushroom is tasty in soups and with albacore tuna sautéed in butter and garlic. (Photo by Holly Bazeley)

The Merritt College mushroom class discovers Gymnopilus spectabilis, or “Laughing Gym,” while on a foray in Mendocino. MSSF vice president David Gardella is right of center in the light-blue jacket.

The Merritt College mushroom class discovers Gymnopilus spectabilis, or “Laughing Gym,” while on a foray in Mendocino. MSSF vice president David Gardella is right of center in the light-blue jacket.

Students from the Merritt College mushroom class gather at Far West Fungi's 2013 farm tour and potluck barbeque in Moss Landing.  Professor Ken Litchfield is in the middle (bearded, with brown cap).

Students from the Merritt College mushroom class gather at Far West Fungi’s 2013 farm tour and potluck barbeque in Moss Landing. Professor Ken Litchfield is in the middle (bearded, with brown cap).

44th Annual Fungus Fair

A well-attended event, the Annual Fungus Fair covers mushroom topics as diverse as ecology and biology, art, and medicine. There are speakers, workshops, demonstrations, vendors, and programs for children. “It’ll be a great one-day immersion into the mushroom world for people young and old alike,” says Gardella.

A gathering of experts and enthusiasts ready to discuss their work and answer questions, the fair features many artfully curated displays of our regions’ mushrooms, which are gathered in a one-day marathon right before the fair opens. In 2012, volunteers collected 215 species from over 21 Bay Area sites for display.

Last year the fair was held at the Lawrence Hall of Science in the Berkeley Hills, but in many earlier years it took place at the Oakland Museum. This year’s venue is the Hall of Flowers (County Fair Building) in Golden Gate Park, and it unfolds on Sunday, December 8, with the forays taking place on Saturday, December 7. Check MSSF.org for updated information about the fair, volunteering, and the MSSF mushroom-centric holiday dinner that takes place on December 16.

MYCO-EDUCATION AT MERRITT COLLEGE

The Merritt College Landscape Horticulture Department offers a rich semester-long cultivation experience at an affordable price. The class is taught by Ken Litchfield, who describes what they teach as “applied mycology, well suited to the vocational focus of two-year community colleges.” The class covers everything from mushroom identification and taxonomy to various mushroom uses, including culinary, medicinal, remediation, art and architecture, fermentation, dyeing, and papermaking. Students go on woodland forays, visit mushroom farms, and attend mushroom events. They also do lots of cooking.

There’s an extraordinary on-campus mushroom gardening territory where students do much more than cultivate oyster and shiitake mushrooms. Lessons in specialty cultivation might include how to inoculate oak seedlings with chanterelle and candy cap spawn, how to grow corn to inoculate parasitic gourmet huitlacoche, and how to tend mulberry trees to provide the leaf substrate that silkworms can inoculate with parasitic Cordyceps fungus.

“Hopefully the student is so immersed in fun and interesting mushroom events, experiences, and assignments that they can’t help but have their craniums filled by the end of the course,” says Litchfield.

Graduates of the course have incorporated mushrooms into landscaping practices and other business ventures. Lisa Leonard, owner of Mother Knows Best Kombucha, was inspired to experiment with mushrooms in kombucha and won “Most Unique” at the 2011 Farm to Fermentation Festival in Santa Rosa with her Candy Cap Kombucha. “I still go mushroom hunting with friends I made in the class,” she says.

Litchfield teaches two other classes with mushroom aspects: Beneficial Beasts in the Garden covers beekeeping, chickens, pond-making, and snail ranching, all aspects of “applied zoology,” or the animal kingdom in the garden. Growing and Using Healthful Herbs covers “applied botany,” or the utilitarian uses of garden plants, and how to grow medicinal mushrooms.

The class also partners with organizations such as MSSF for educational events, and mentoring is the order of the day. Former student David Gardella became Litchfield’s instructional aide from 2008 through 2012, and is now MSSF vice president. Today, he co-teaches classes with Litchfield through the MSSF, Sonoma County Mycological Society, Telluride Mushroom Festival, and other organizations and schools. Says Gardella, “Ken’s been an invaluable resource in applied knowledge of the natural world for me, and I am very grateful for his tutelage, guidance, and friendship.” Seth Peterson, a permaculture student and homesteader, seconds that emotion and adds, “Ken Litchfield has probably forgotten more than I will ever know.”

Every semester there is also a farm tour and potluck barbecue at Far West Fungi, the premier organic specialty mushroom farm, located in Moss Landing. It’s an opportunity for students to learn about the business end of mushroom cultivation and related enterprises. Says Far West Fungi co-owner Toby Garrone, “John and I met Ken years ago through the San Francisco Mycological Society. I don’t know if he ever sleeps. It’s incredible, what he seems to be able to get done. Teaching, going to this conference, that event, growing mushrooms and plants, bicycling everywhere, and then he’s got that farm in Moraga.”

MUSHROOMS IN THE FARM AND GARDEN

Fungi should be welcomed into the garden; they are a natural part of its' ecology, building the soil food web.  Above a mushroom pokes up through native grasses in a backyard meadow.

Fungi should be welcomed into the garden; they are a natural part of its’ ecology, building the soil food web. Above a mushroom pokes up through native grasses in a backyard meadow. (Photo by Jillian Steinberger)

Mushrooms and plants are natural companions. Soils expert Amigo Bob Cantisano is the principal of Organic Ag Advisors and cofounder of the 33-year-old Ecological Farming Association (eco-farm.org). He is also an avid mushroom hunter, small-scale shiitake grower, and an advisor to organic mushroom growers. He says, “Fungi are essential for all soils and plant life. Annual and perennial crops rely on soil fungi to a great degree. Fungi provide a huge array of vital functions for plants, including transfer of nutrients, decay of organic material, creation of humus and humic acids, production of probiotics and antibiotics, improving soil structure and tilth, soil’s water holding capacity, and more. Mycorrhizal fungi are just one important group of soil fungi. They infest nearly all species of plants, including annuals and perennials, and are beneficial as an inoculant for seeds and transplants.”

This mycelial mindset directs the fungus gardener, who hopes to receive the fruiting structures—mushrooms—as a reward for all the efforts in reconditioning and diversifying the soil. Look for mycorrhizal amendments at quality gardening stores. Or try hydroponics supply shops for the best product choices.

Urban growth

Commonly mistaken for wild animal vomit, slime molds are considered by mycologist Paul Stamets to be one of the earth's most amazing life forms. (Photo by Jillian Steinberger)

Commonly mistaken for wild animal vomit, slime molds are considered by mycologist Paul Stamets to be one of the earth’s most amazing life forms. (Photo by Jillian Steinberger)

“With the rise of urban homesteads and community gardens, the potential to add mushrooms to the urban ag mix is high,” says Oakland resident David Gardella, vice president of MSSF and an urban agriculture specialist with the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco.

“Mushrooms are a wonderful, nutritious food that are easy to cultivate once you learn how, so adding mushroom cultivation to the homesteading repertoire is only natural,” says Yolanda Burrell, who hosts mushroom cultivation workshops at her store, Pollinate Farm & Garden in Oakland’s Fruitvale district. Students learn basic growing techniques and make kits to take home.

K. Ruby Blume, headmistress of Oakland’s Institute for Urban Homesteading, also hosts workshops. She explains, “We offer a broad spectrum of classes and try to include just about every aspect of urban sustainability. Mushrooms fit into that category. Some, such as oysters and shiitakes, are well suited to home cultivation within the parameters of the busy urban lifestyle. And they can be grown in a shady part of the yard where nothing else grows.”

Leading many of these mushroom cultivation workshops are Mushroom Maestros Ray and Patty Lanier. In April 2010 the couple bought an off-the-grid urban farm in West Oakland. It didn’t take long before they were supplying fresh and sun-dried organic oyster mushrooms to stores like Alameda Natural Grocery, Berkeley Bowl, and Food Mill in Oakland.

Ray is a lifelong grower, and has studied with leading mycologist Paul Stamets. Patty became interested in mushrooms when she met Ray and learned about the impressive nutritional values of many varieties, such as the fact that 6 ounces of oyster mushrooms can yield up 5.6 g of protein, 4 g of fiber, less than one gram of fat, and 714 mg of potassium. “Mushrooms are absolute superfoods that possess serious healing power!” she says.

The couple recently bought a farm near Clearlake, where they host guests and offer “mushroom travel adventures” through airbnb.com. They still love coming back to the East Bay to teach workshops on cultivating oyster, king stropharia, and shiitake mushrooms. Says Patty, “I hope to see my hometown thrive in regards to community farming. The parts of the city I grew up in are what activists call food deserts, where fresh, healthy, organic food cannot be purchased within a five mile radius. Urban farming is a chance to change that.”

Landscaping for Mushrooms

Seth Peterson says his growing system is easy and successful. He innoculates straw with oyster mushroom spawn and stuffs it inside an overturned bucket punched with holes. (Photo by Seth Peterson)

Seth Peterson says his growing system is easy and successful. He innoculates straw with oyster mushroom spawn and stuffs it inside an overturned bucket punched with holes. (Photo by Seth Peterson)

Says mycophile and Bay Area Radical Mycology point person Mino de Angelis, “It’s a pleasant surprise to find these otherworldly living beings popping up amongst the plants in your garden.”

If you want to grow mushrooms, you can start small with a grow kit. For people without gardening space, mushrooms can be grown indoors, on patios or balconies, or even on front stoops.

People who want a mushroom garden or landscape should start by surveying their growing area from the point of view of a mushroom. What trees are there: oaks, conifers? Is there grass or meadow? You’ll be looking for microclimates that provide shade, warmth, humidity, and shelter from wind. Good places to grow mushrooms are under trees, in lawns, under plants with large leaves in damp or irrigated areas, in compost piles or decomposing hardwood logs, in white hardwood sawdust, wood chips, grass clippings, straw bales, or manure.

The next step is introducing spawn, or mycelium. Keep it moist and sheltered. Don’t let the substrate dry out: Mist frequently. Be patient as you wait for the spawn to incubate and the mycelium to colonize the substrate. Enjoy the visual interest as the mushrooms’ fruiting bodies pop up, seemingly overnight. The next step is to enjoy them for dinner.

Even simpler is to enjoy the mushrooms that appear completely on their. After the rains, poke around in your garden and they’ll be there. (Don’t eat them unless you can get assurance from an expert that they are an edible variety.)

CAN (EDIBLE) MUSHROOMS SAVE THE WORLD?

Issa (canine companion of Mino de Angelis) watches Monica Neff (right) inoculate logs at the Orinda mycoforestry project. (Photo by Joe Soeller)

Issa (canine companion of Mino de Angelis) watches Monica Neff (right) inoculate logs at the Orinda mycoforestry project. (Photo by Joe Soeller)

Planetary restoration depends on saving Mother Earth’s old growth forests. They are home to fungal life so diverse it will blow your mind if you focus attention on it for a nanosecond. Strangely, although a primary ecological role of fungi is decomposition (composting dead things), these organisms are rich with life-giving properties. Mushroom spawn, or mycelium, stimulates microbial and enzymatic activity such that toxins break down and are digested in place. Mushrooms have the potential to neutralize “all things bad” from cancers to viruses, and from heavy-metal contamination to oil spills and even nerve gas. The key is choosing the right mushroom species to target specific toxins, which takes science.

This is the message of the brilliant, iconic mycologist Paul Stamets, author of the classic book Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World (Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, 2005). From his base in the fungal paradise of Washington State’s old growth rain forests, Stamets has inspired many around the world to pursue mycoremediation, including some in the Bay Area.

A volunteer work party installs a mycofilter. (Photo by Maya Elson)

A volunteer work party installs a mycofilter. (Photo by Maya Elson)

Here, in the rolling hills of Orinda on East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) land, members, and friends of Bay Area Radical Mycology (BARM) and CoRenewal are undertaking experiments to help restore the land and waters. While their designs are high concept, they are low tech, and thus cheap, which is a boon if adopted on a massive scale. Their materials are accessible and biodegradable (no metals or plastics), including some mushrooms that are “edible and choice,” says point person Mino de Angelis, a “mycophile” and founding member of BARM.

Scott Hill, EBMUD’s manager of watershed and recreation, is enthusiastic about the collaboration. “It’s a commonsense approach that is both environmentally and fiscally sustainable. In addition to these benefits, the fact that mycoremediation is a natural approach appeals to me,” he says. For his part, de Angelis enjoys the site. “The EBMUD watershed is a wonderful area for hiking and seeing wildlife. I have observed around 50 mushroom species on a three hour walk,” he says.

Their mycoforestry project, set in a Monterey pine grove, seeks to eliminate the high cost to EBMUD of hauling away fallen trees by horse to reduce fire risk. The test approach keeps valuable biomass onsite: when organic matter is left to break down on the forest floor—just like twigs and leaves in your garden—it cycles nutrients, builds soil life, retains soil moisture, and prevents erosion. Among other fungi, including some natives, the star of the show is Pleurotus pulmonarius, or tree oyster, a mainstay of the gourmet mushroom industry. Mycelium was introduced into the fallen trees to enhance the decomposition rate. As the trees rot they are taken over by the mycelium and become a spongy water storage device. Essentially, this applied biology experiment asks, “How quickly can we observe a dead tree morph into a large mini mushroom farm?” If the expected results manifest, everything will be coming up mushrooms.

Another of the collaboration’s efforts is a mycofiltration project. The goal: filter out and neutralize water-borne contaminants like E. coli, Giardia and Cryptosporidium from the dung of cattle that are allowed to graze on the land for short periods. A report explains, “During rainstorms, bacteria and protozoa present in cattle dung leach into creek beds that eventually lead to water reservoirs. These reservoirs supply drinking water to the greater East Bay…” Chloramines are used to eliminate the contaminants. However, the safety of these harsh chemicals is debatable. For example, chloramines must be removed from ponds and fish tanks or fish actually die. Gulp! What if drinking water could be purified with fungi?

So, volunteers took a pile of straw inoculated with Stropharia rugosoannulata (aka garden giant, wine cap, or burgundy cap), which is particularly effective at neutralizing E. coli. They combined it with wood chips and placed it into burlap bags to create bunker spawn, with which they lined a key section of a seasonal creek bed. Says BARM member Seth Peterson, “Group work parties are fun. Our volunteers are professional and home cultivators, mycology grad students, teachers, permaculturalists, mycophiles, and others drawn to using fungi to repair and restore natural systems.”

Maya Elson, now of Santa Cruz, is a co-founder of Radical Mycology, which is based in Olympia, Washington. Elson was in Orinda to record the installation. She observed, “It was an amazing collaboration between grassroots organizers, interested citizens, and EBMUD. It is exciting that so many people were involved, who now have the enthusiasm and skills to carry out similar projects elsewhere.”

Things are happening. This fall BARM and CoRenewal are moving forward with both projects on a bigger scale. To create space for native trees, they will inoculate 50 cut-down Monterey pines (considered invasive in the East Bay) on site using decomposer mushrooms. They’ll also create two large biofilters, using oyster and Stropharia mycelium that will “run” in bags of substrate materials like coffee grounds, sawdust, or straw, to deal with effluents from a cattle holding pen.

What makes the group radical? De Angelis explains: “We’re radical because we’re not waiting for academia and industry to catch up on these methods. I wish they would. Unfortunately it’s a new field and we’re learning as we go. The world is watching. If we discover safe, low-cost methods that other watershed managers can utilize, we’ll have made a big contribution.”

To volunteer, visit bayarearadicalmycology.org, where you’ll find opportunities and updates. Kids are welcome.

RESOURCES

Mycological societies and groups

Information on events, forays, camps, workshops, lectures, recipes

Mycological Society of San Francisco

Sonoma Mycological Association

Santa Cruz Fungus Federation

Bay Area Mycological Society

Peninsula Mycological Circle

Bay Area Radical Mycology

North American Mycological Association

Identification

Mykoweb.com, created by MSSF member, Mike Wood, is a good resource for West Coast foragers.

Fungimag.com is the online version of Fungi magazine, and it’s full of content.

Farm & Garden Mushroom Resources

Mycorrhizae.com/mycocyclopedia explains the associations between fungus and plants.

Fieldforest.net sells spawn and other supplies for home gardeners.

Mycoremediation

Download radicalmycology.com’s neat little zine which covers all the fungal basics.

For inspiration and edification, visit fungi.com or watch Paul Stamets’ TED talk.

To mycoremediate the mind, visit femaleandfungi.com.