Revelations from the mushroom people

BY JILLIAN STEINBERGER

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.

 

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

 

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: 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.

 

Edible Mushroom Catalog Created for Edible East Bay Magazine by Melissa Garden


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

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

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.)

 
 
 
 
 

Annual Fungus Fair

Always 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.

 

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)

 

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.

 

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.

 

“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.

 

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).

 

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.”

 

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 IN THE FARM AND GARDEN

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.

 

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)

 

Urban growth

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)

“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

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.)

 

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

 

CAN (EDIBLE) MUSHROOMS SAVE THE WORLD?

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.

Here, in the rolling hills of Orinda on East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) land, members, and friends of Bay Area Applied Mycology (BAAM) 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 BAAM (formerly called Bay Area Radical Mycology or 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.

 

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

 

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 BAAM 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 BAAM 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.”

Editor’s note added in 2021: Visit Bay Area Applied Mycology to get up to date information on BAAM’s recent activities and opportunities to volunteer.

 

Mino de Angeles eyes the stropharia harvest. (Photo by Sean Parnell)

 

Sean Parnell helps himself to a handfull of Stropharia before heading to the kitchen. (Photo Sean Parnell)

 

Sean Parnell’s Simple Stropharia Recipes

Parnell, a BAAM volunteer, says he was completely disgusted and unwilling to eat mushrooms of any sort until very recently. Now, with an ongoing supply of stropharia in easy reach at the project in Orinda, he cooks and eats mushrooms with enthusiasm. When Sean gathers young stropharia (picked before their caps have flared out), he prepares them by removing stems, cleaning caps with a brush or towel, brushing both sides with extra virgin olive oil, resting them cap down, and applying salt, pepper, and a dash of Worcestershire or balsamic vinegar. He grills or bakes until tender and garnishes with flat-leaf parsley. Sometimes he adds sausage bits or melted cheese.

For mature stropharia (picked after their caps have flared out), he cleans them as above and then thinly slices them, tossing with sliced onion, minced garlic, salt, pepper, extra-virgin olive oil or butter, and a dash of Worcestershire. He pan-fries or wraps in a foil packet to put on the grill until done. An alternate version is to pan-fry in butter, adding chopped tarragon, salt, and pepper, and a splash of cream at the end.

 

Norm Andresen’s Mushroom Finder

Norm Andresen Photo by Ken Litchfield

Norm Andresen
Photo by Ken Litchfield

Wondering which edible mushrooms are found here in Central and Northern California? Says MSSF foray coordinator Norm Andresen, “That depends on the forest and the season. On a morel hunt, one looks for morels but might instead find Gyromitras, boletes, or false morels. Oaks are an excellent mushroom producing tree, so knowing the tree means that you know the mushrooms that will be around it.” There are approximately 12,000 fungal species in California. He says, “It is confusing to have common and Latin names together, but that’s how it plays out. Not everything has a common name.”
Here is Norm’s key to finding mushrooms according to biota:

Oak woodland: chanterelles, candy caps, Russulas, boletes
Tan oak woodland: matsutake, black chanterelles, Russulas, hedgehogs
Douglas fir forest: Russulas, chanterelles, truffles, slippery jacks
Pine forest: boletes, chanterelles, hedgehogs, slippery jacks
Madrone, manzanita: matsutake, white chanterelles, Russulas
Cypress: Agaricus, blewits
Grasslands: Agaricus, puff balls
Eucalyptus: sulfur shelves, Lacaria

 

A Foraging Question & Answer

Mushroom Joe Photo by Michelle Lindsay

Mushroom Joe
Photo by Michelle Lindsay

He’s all about fun and frolic. Still, MSSF’s cultivation chair, Ken Litchfield, recommends that foragers exercise caution. He says, “There are lots of controversies surrounding mycological topics and foraging is one of them.” It’s important to forage responsibly. The following Q&A with two experts will help clarify what that means.

Norm Andresen (NA), an engineer at Tesla Motors, became interested in mushrooms as a child. These days, as the foray chair of MSSF, he spends much of his free time giving lectures and taking people on forays all over California. “You aren’t going to find anyone who is more knowledgeable or generous on forays,” says Litchfield.

“Mushroom Joe” Soeller (JS) is a member of Bay Area Applied Mycology, where he’s documented the group’s mycoremediation projects. An avid cultivator, he recently completed a lab internship growing medicinal mycelia. He’s led informal trips for Slow Food East Bay, the San Francisco Art Institute, and BAAM, where they look, learn, and enjoy but generally do not eat the mushrooms. mushroomjoe.com

Q: How does one learn to identify mushrooms, so they can lead others on trips safely?

Norm Andresen: Learning to ID is a long process, which takes years. For me it has involved personal study, classes at San Francisco State, and being mentored by fellow enthusiasts.

Joe Soeller: I went absolutely nuts and drilled the experienced gurus on everything they knew when I got started with the San Diego Mycological Society. You can spend your whole life reading reference books and seeking knowledge on mycology and continue to find fresh material.

Q: How important is it to go with an expert?

NA: As with all wild foods, you have to work within your knowledge base. There are poisonous birds, frogs, seeds, berries, nuts, roots, leaves, fish, and mushrooms. The process of being safe is “learn first, eat later.”

JS: Until I trusted my own ability, I always waited to eat a mushroom until I witnessed an expert eat it and survive. We know Cantharellus cibarius, the chanterelle, is an edible mushroom because during some period of our ancient past some dude ate it and survived. Some were not as fortunate with other mushrooms. I imagine in the past, when humans were curious to know which foods were edible and which were poisonous, a typical conversation sounded something like, “Hey Bob, I ate the last mushroom, it’s your turn.”

Q: Is it legal to pick mushrooms, and where can you forage legally?

NA: Foraging is frowned upon in most state parks. It’s easier to obtain permits in city and county parks. I lead trips to such places as Joaquin Miller [the only park in Oakland that allows foraging], Lands End, and McLaren Park in San Francisco. We start finding mushrooms in late November or December in the East Bay. In the coastal areas, like Point Reyes, the mushrooms start coming up with the summer fog drip and continue through the rainy season. Soquel State Forest [Santa Cruz Mountains] can be good, usually in January and February, and it’s legal. At Salt Point [in Sonoma County] it is legal to pick up to five pounds of mushrooms. It’s a good spot but very popular.

JS: You can even find an abundance of mushrooms around San Francisco. I’ve walked students of SF Art Institute through Golden Gate Park, which has a wonderful variety of flora and an interesting variety of mushroom species. For BAAM, I led people around the UC Berkeley campus. We started at Sather Tower and didn’t get much farther. [There was plenty to see.]

Q: When is the right time to start poking around outside?

NA: In California, anytime. Because of our varied topography and climate, we can find good mushrooms just about any day. You may have to travel to the mountains or coastal fog zones, but mushrooms are out.

JS: The general rule of thumb is the fall and the spring. The other rule of thumb is after the rains. [He notes that there are exceptions.]

Q: How do you know what’s going to be up and when?

NA: Mushrooms seem to have mast years, when one or another species is plentiful, and others are a no-show. This last year it was candy caps, they were everywhere. But chanterelles were a no-show. It seems that the trees that feed the mushrooms have some choice as to which will be fed sugar, and the mushrooms have various niches. One may be better at supplying phosphorus or nitrogen to the trees, so they get the lion’s share this year. It is a fungal market place and the trees are the shoppers. Who would have thought in the forest you are walking on a shopping mall under the ground?

Q: Are organized trips expensive?

NA: MSSF forays are free, although you have to pay your own way on camping trips.

JS: I just ask for donations. But mushroom foraging can be expensive. Some older and experienced mushroom guides will charge $75 a head. For thousands of dollars some guides will take you to Tibet to seek a medicinal mushroom that grows from caterpillars.

Q: Are forays fun?

NA: I am doing it for the love of the interest, the glory of the hunt, and the joy of being in the woods with fellow enthusiasts. They always are smiling when they have a mushroom in the hand.

JS: The walks can be fun but it’s more of an educational tour. My intention is to remove any ambiguity surrounding the activity. The entire notion of mushrooms can be nebulous, frightening, and foreign, so I start from scratch and teach students via metaphor and anecdotal experience. The last thing I would want to do is communicate something in an obscure way that could lead an individual to consuming something that is hazardous to their health.

 

DIARY OF A MUSHROOM CULTIVATOR
By Ray Lanier, co-owner, Mushroom Maestros

The Laniers: Ray, Patty and Juliette

The Laniers: Ray, Patty and Juliette

I acquired Paul Stamets’ book The Mushroom Cultivator back in 1987. I was 17 years old, but had tried growing mushrooms earlier than that. Growing up in Atlanta, Georgia, I had never met a mushroom farmer and had no mentor. I failed a lot. It seemed like I was becoming an expert at growing all sorts of random molds and bacterias.

When you grow mushrooms you have to engage all of your senses and not just follow a recipe. The mushrooms will start speaking to you. When you become so intimate with the organism that you know what it needs, you have entered into a new realm of understanding. Your skin senses the temperature and you just know without looking at the thermometer whether the mushrooms are too cold or too hot.

It was during this period that I met another kid who was into mushrooms and we pressed on together. He was an interesting, precocious sort of kid. He had dropped out of high school and was living in abandoned buildings—a sort of Jack Kerouac adventure—at a very early age, and somehow also had developed a love of mushrooms. So there he was, Michael Marsh, my first mushroom buddy. His passion for mushrooms was already much broader than mine and suddenly I was stomping through the Georgia woods to look for morels, agaricus, boletes, and chanterelles.

I read and reread Paul Stamets’ book, literally falling asleep over it again and again. It changed my life. The techniques worked, and I found I was growing mushrooms. It was in 1993, I think, that my friend Eddie and I traveled to the Pacific Northwest to see Paul’s place and take his seminar. Paul had an impressive set up for grow rooms and laboratory space. I remember Eddie and I cooked prince agaricus and salmon wrapped in aluminum foil and stuck it on the rental car engine to cook. That is a trip I will remember for the rest of my life.

Today I have a family mushroom business. The reason I do it is so that we can be together and learn together. Without my wife I would not be able to run the dishwasher, much less a business. Our daughter has grown up working with us side by side. We do everything together as a family and I feel that having Juliette also helps my teaching skills because I have had to explain everything I am doing to a seven-year-old child, who asks great questions about why everything is the way it is.

 

Coral Oyster Mushroom
Photo by Holly Bazeley

 

PATTY LANIER’S THAI-STYLE FRIED RICE WITH OYSTER MUSHROOMS

“Our daughter loves mushrooms . . . Well, some of them,” says Patty Lanier of Mushroom Maestros. “Juliette is seven and is still developing her mushroom palate. Her favorite is a tiny little mushroom called the nameko [orange, shiny, slippery, and fleshy, it’s often used in soups]. She also loves oyster mushrooms cooked in coconut oil and sea salt until they are a little crisp on the edges. Take those and add them to pizza or a grilled cheese sandwich and kids big and small will love them.”

Makes 2–3 hearty or 4–6 modest servings

2 tablespoons coconut oil (or more as needed)
1 small yellow onion, chopped
1 pound fresh or 2 ounces dried oyster mushrooms, reconstituted
1 or 2 eggs, scrambled
3 cups cooked brown or white rice
½ teaspoon white pepper
2 tablespoons soy sauce (or more to taste)
1–2 tablespoons molasses or brown sugar (or more to taste)
2 tablespoons lime juice
⅛ cup chopped cilantro
2 or 3 scallions, white parts only, chopped
Crushed red pepper (optional)
1 small grated carrot (optional)
6 slices of cucumber (optional)

Heat 1 tablespoon coconut oil in a skillet or wok. Add the onion and fresh or dried/reconstituted oyster mushrooms and cook until tender and starting to caramelize. Remove to a plate. Add another tablespoon coconut oil and heat to a hot temperature. Add pre-cooked rice, stirring until the grains separate. Add the mushroom and onion mixture and continue to cook at a lower heat. Combine the white pepper, soy sauce, molasses or sugar, and lime juice in a bowl, mixing well. Pour this mixture over the rice and stir until absorbed by the rice. (Feel free to add a little garlic at this point, if you wish.) Stir in the scrambled egg and chopped scallions. Cook just a minute longer, removing from heat before the scallions lose their crunch. Sprinkle with cilantro and crushed red pepper to taste. Garnish with grated carrots and cucumber slices.

 

TOBY GARRONE’S WILD MUSHROOM PIZZA

1 teaspoon olive oil
Pizza dough (use pre-made or make your own)
1 tablespoon butter
1 pound assorted fresh wild mushrooms, cut into ¼-inch-thick slices
1 teaspoon dried thyme
Salt and pepper to taste
1 8-ounce package cream cheese
4 ounces fontina cheese, shredded
1 cup shredded mozzarella

Heat oven to 400º. Brush a large cookie sheet with the olive oil and press out pizza dough into a 15- by 10-inch rectangle. Bake 8–10 minutes or until crust is light brown. Meanwhile, heat butter in a 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat until melted. Add mushrooms, cook about 6 minutes, stirring frequently until well browned, then stir in thyme, salt, and pepper. Spread cream cheese evenly over crust. Sprinkle fontina cheese over cream cheese. Spread cooked mushrooms over cheese. Sprinkle mozzarella cheese over mushrooms. Bake 10-12 minutes longer or until cheese is melted and crust is golden. Cool 5 minutes, then cut into whatever serving size you desire.

 

MATSUTAKE WITH RICE                                          

3 cups raw rice
Water (appropriate amount for the type of rice you are using)
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons of shoyu soy sauce
2 medium-size matsutake (approximately ¾ pound), sliced into small, thin wedges
Nori, thinly sliced (optional)
Sesame seeds, toasted (optional)

Place rice, the appropriate amount of water, salt, and shoyu in a cooking pot or rice cooker. Spread the sliced mushrooms over the rice. Turn the rice cooker on and cook until rice is done. When the rice is cooked, mix mushroom into the rice and serve immediately. Sprinkle with nori and sesame seeds, if desired.

 

MUSHROOM-STUFFED MINI PUMPKINS

6 miniature sugar pumpkins or acorn squash
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 ounces black trumpet mushrooms, trimmed, cleaned, and chopped
4 ounces yellowfoot chanterelle mushrooms, trimmed, cleaned, and chopped
1/4 cup light cream
1 egg yolk
1 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
1/4 teaspoon fresh ground pepper
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg, ground
1 teaspoon minced fresh sage
3 tablespoons dry breadcrumbs
1 tablespoon grated Parmesan cheese

Cut pumpkins or squash in half, place cut-side down on a baking sheet, and roast until soft. Remove from oven and set aside to cool.

Heat 2 tablespoons butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add black trumpets and sauté until softened, about 3 minutes. Stir in the yellowfoot and cook until the mushrooms are tender, about 5 minutes. Set aside.

Scrape flesh out from the tops and bottoms of the pumpkins, leaving enough to maintain structural integrity. (You should have 1¾ cups of flesh.) Place the pumpkin bottoms in a baking pan.

Place pumpkin flesh in a food processor and purée until smooth. Add cream, egg yolk, salt, pepper, and nutmeg and process until the mixture is creamy and light yellow. Transfer to a mixing bowl and fold in the sautéed mushrooms, then spoon this filling into the pumpkin bottoms.

Preheat oven to 350°F.

Melt the remaining tablespoon butter in a small skillet. Stir in the sage and cook until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Stir in the breadcrumbs. Cool completely, then stir in the cheese. Sprinkle over pumpkins. Bake, uncovered, until the filling is set and the topping is golden brown, about 25 minutes.

 

TWO MUSHROOM GRAVY RECIPES

Mushroom gravy #1

By Toby Garrone, Far West Fungi

½ pound mixed mushrooms, cleaned and chopped
1/4 cup yellow onion, diced
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons white flour or cornstarch
4 cups vegetable or mushroom stock
1 tablespoon soy sauce
¼ cup dry red wine
1/4 teaspoon black pepper

Heat 1½ tablespoons oil in a large sauté pan. Add mushrooms and onions and cook over medium heat for 5 minutes. Add the wine to the pan and continue cooking until most of the moisture is gone. Add the rest of the olive oil to the mushrooms and then add the flour. Cook the flour with the mushrooms for 1 minute. Whisk in the stock along with the soy sauce and black pepper. Cook until thickened, whisking out any lumps that may form. Remove the gravy from the heat when it reaches your desired consistency. Serve warm.

Mushroom Gravy #2

By Chef Lacey Sher, Owner, Encuentro Café & Wine Bar, Jack London Square, Oakland

This simple recipe is delicious over grains, with greens, and of course on top of mashed potatoes.

Yield: 1 quart

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
½ medium onion, small dice
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon fresh thyme
1 tablespoon minced fresh rosemary
1/2 pound fresh shitaake mushrooms, sliced
1/2 pound button mushrooms, sliced
1 cup vegetable stock
1/3 cup tamari
2 tablespoons arrowroot starch
1/3 cup water

In a large pot, sauté the onion, garlic, thyme, and rosemary in olive oil until the onions are soft. Add the mushrooms and cook until they have released their juices. Mix the tamari and stock together and add to the pot with the tamari. Bring to a simmer, and cook for 15 minutes. Make a slurry from the arrowroot and the remaining water, and add that to the pot. Cook the gravy until thickened. Add salt and pepper to taste.

 

CHANTERELLE CROSTINI

By Chef Suzanne Drexhage, Owner of Bartavelle Coffee & Wine Bar on San Pablo in Berkeley

Pain au levain or other rustic bread
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 pound chanterelles, cleaned and chopped roughly
2–3 shallots, chopped fine
2 teaspoons fresh thyme, chopped fine

Slice the levain or other bread fairly thinly, cut into rough rectangles, cutting off tough crusts if necessary. Oil a baking sheet, then lay the bread pieces on it, and dot the tops with a little more oil. Bake at 400 degrees for 10 minutes, or until crisp and lightly browned.

Melt the butter with the olive oil in a sauté pan over medium high heat. Add the shallots and sauté, stirring often until softened, a couple of minutes. Add the chopped chanterelles, thyme, and salt and pepper to taste. Cook, stirring for a couple of minutes until the mushrooms give off their liquid, then add a splash of white wine and continue cooking and stirring until the liquid evaporates and mushrooms begin to brown a little. Check seasoning, and scoop a nice amount on to the crostini.

 

RESOURCES

Mycological societies and groups

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

Mycological Society of San Francisco

Sonoma Mycological Association

Bay Area Mycological Society

Peninsula Mycological Circle

Bay Area Applied 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

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

To mycoremediate the mind, visit femaleandfungi.com.