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Fun with Fungi

By Anna Tracht

This past Friday, we were lucky enough to have former AMI Fellow Charlie Aller come to the mountain to share his extensive knowledge of fungi and mushrooms with us. He began the morning with a talk on mushrooms, and our group had a lot of interest and curiosity about the topic — we hardly let him get out a sentence without asking several new questions.

But before we could get ahead of ourselves, we had to gain a basic understanding of fungal biology. Mycology more broadly refers to the study of fungi, which includes mushrooms, yeasts, and molds. (For the record, I’ve always pronounced it “fun-guy,” because I’m a sucker for bad puns, but most mycologists prefer to say it “fun-jai.”) We learned that fungi can be subdivided into three categories:

1. Mycorrhizal fungi- these are species that attach to the root systems of living plants and enter into a mutually beneficial relationship with them. In exchange for receiving photosynthesized sugars from the plant, the fungus will expand the reach of the plant’s root system, increasing access to nutrients and water that would be otherwise unavailable. Over 90% of all plants have a relationship with mycorrhizal fungi, and they are an important indicator of healthy soils. Truffle mushrooms are one kind of mycorrhizal fungi.

2. Endophytic fungi- these fungi live inside of other plants or fungi. They can be beneficial to their hosts, and there is ongoing research about how to manipulate the endophytes of certain plants to make them more drought, heat, or pest resistant. However, parasitic fungi also fall under this category, and these fungi kill their host, whether it’s a plant, animal, or other fungus.

3. Saprophytic fungi- most cultivated mushrooms fall into this category; these are fungi that eat dead plant matter, such as fallen trees. Shiitake and oyster mushrooms are both saprophytic. These are the easiest fungi to cultivate, and the kind of mushrooms we got to play with on Friday!

Charlie then explained to us how to go about cultivating mushrooms in an at-home laboratory. After he walked us through the process step-by-step, we had the chance to inoculate oak logs with shiitake and lion’s mane spores. Below, Charlie shows us the bags of sawdust spawn for

us to use:

We also planted two mushroom beds down in the lower garden- one of king oyster mushrooms, and one bed of almond portobello mushrooms in the hoop house:

We had a blast getting to put the lesson from the morning into

action in the afternoon! We started by drilling holes in the oak logs that had been cut for the workshop:

Once the holes were drilled, we filled the logs with the inoculant, which is composed of substrate (in this case, sawdust) for the fungi to eat and grow on, and the mushroom spawn themselves. We used specialized tools to do this two at a time:

After this we covered the holes with melted wax to seal in the

spawn, and to prevent any unwanted fungi from growing.

The logs now have to sit for at least six months, until the mycelium has fully colonized the log. This is the point at which the mushrooms produce their fruit, which is the part of the fungus we usually consider to be the “mushroom,” the part we harvest and eat. To induce fruiting, the logs need to be watered. On Monday, we took twelve shiitake mushroom logs from last year and dunked them in the pond.

This mimics the weather conditions of a typhoon, which is when

the shiitake would fruit in its natural habitat. Other mushrooms, like the oysters, just need a good watering with a sprinkler or hose to fruit. After soaking for about 24 hours, the shiitake logs will sit for one to two weeks before the mushrooms are ready to be harvested.

And when this happens, we will most certainly reap the benefits! Each log can be dunked about every four to six weeks, and we’re working out a rotation so that we always have mushrooms to harvest. I’m incredibly excited to get the mushroom operation up and going, and to keep exploring all of the amazing benefits of fungi to our health, and also the health of the larger ecosystem. Thanks again for a great intro to fungi, Charlie (and for being a fun guy!), and thanks for answering all of our many, many questions.

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