As a horticulturist I’ve always had an interest in mushrooms and other fungi, but the interest has been more of a technical fascination than the gastronomic type. But home mushroom cultivation and wild mushroom hunting as a hobby seems to be a pursuit whose followers have grown in numbers that are pretty impressive. And while growing mushrooms at home can be a very satisfying and safe hobby, you absolutely need to know what you’re doing if you’re going to collect them from the wild. One mistake, one simple mis-identification can result in your death. And if you don’t die you can certainly get very, very sick. At home, you can buy kits or get spores and instructions that give you the information to set up logs or substrates in your yard and garden so you can raise your own mushrooms. It’s a pretty simple process that can take weeks to months depending on the mushroom you want and the technique you decide to use. Among those you might find easy and interesting are the oyster mushrooms, which adapt well to “bag” culture. Shiitake mushrooms can be grown outdoors on inoculated logs (not just any log, though), and they can also be grown indoors on sawdust blocks. Wine caps or King Stropharia can be grown outdoors on wood chips. Maitake, which are also known as hen of the woods, can be grown on logs or indoors on sawdust and are often found growing at the base of certain trees … but again, in the wild be absolutely certain what you’re harvesting.
The reishi mushroom, which is said to have certain medicinal uses in traditional Chinese medicine, can be grown on sawdust or logs, and it’s available in kits as well. Nameko mushrooms are very popular in Japan, are marketed in the US as “butterscotch mushrooms” and can be grown on sawdust or logs. The velvet foot mushroom or enokitake can be grown on sawdust, paper and cardboard and in Asia it’s grown in jars under low light and high carbon dioxide concentrations. The brown beech mushroom, also sold as buna shimeji in Japan, can be grown on sawdust, logs or straw. The pioppino mushroom, which is sold in the united states as the “chestnut mushroom,” can be grown on hardwood chips and sawdust or on hardwood logs. And the royal trumpet mushroom, which is shaped like a small bowling pin and is mostly stem but firm and meaty, can be grown on hardwood sawdust or straw with cottonseed meal. This one is also commonly grown in jars in Asia.
So, if cultivation at home interests you, the first thing to figure out is which variety interests you and if you seek a culinary treat or a possible medicinal supplement. If you’re a beginner it’s probably best to start with the oyster mushrooms and then move up the ladder of challenges that offer other rewards. Next you need to obtain a culture, or you can buy spawn from a mushroom cultivation supplier. Then you’ll need a substrate—the medium on which you grow your mushrooms—and then you inoculate your substrate with the spawn. It’s really a fascinating process and one that can be done as an indoor project or one you can do outdoors to supplement your gardening activities as well as your dining table.
For those of you wanting to collect in the wild, the wild mushroom season out here lasts until early November or our first good frost. One of the best ways to learn mushroom collecting is to join a foray. That’s what a group of mushroom hunters traipsing through the tundra is called. And you’re in luck because October 18, is Mushroom Day at Planting Fields Arboretum in Oyster Bay.
This will be a great way to see a display of dozens of types of mushrooms, and you’ll get to hunt for them with guided help and meet people who do this regularly. In mushroom hunting there is always safety in numbers.
But once again, wild mushroom hunting is not a hobby to be taken lightly unless you like to live on the wild and potentially dead side. I’ve taken several mushroom classes and I’ve gone on three or four forays with Bob Byfus, one of the US greatest mushroom hunters, who also boast that there isn’t a mushroom alive that hasn’t poisoned him. But having seen the pearly gates, he’s ever so cautious these days and has found that as he’s gotten older his body seems to react more and more as if he’s developed an allergic-like reaction to nearly all mushrooms. There are certain clues that mushrooms can give you that help to determine if they are edible, will kill you or just make you very sick, but in the end, caution should always be your guide.
These wild fungi come in all shapes, sizes and colors and have some remarkable names, including the amply warning “death cap” and the perfectly descriptive “lobster claw.” But consider this from an incident I remember in 2008. Sixty-one-year-old Zoila Tapia was driving down Interstate 684 in Westchester when she pulled into a rest stop just a half-hour from her home in White Plains. This rest stop has picnic tables and restrooms and just off the parking area the grass slopes away into the nearby woods. Zoila walked into the woods and there she found some mushrooms, which, it was presumed, resembled some wild mushrooms she’d collected and eaten in her native Eastern European homeland.
Hours later she began to vomit and then complained of severe abdominal pain. Internal bleeding probably followed and then she later suffered kidney failure. Three days after she ate what she thought was a familiar-looking mushroom, Zoila Tapia died. She had eaten the highly poisonous mushroom known as the death angel.
Yes, it’s a great hobby. Yes, you can easily and safely grow a number of different types of mushrooms indoors and outside. But when it comes to mushrooms in the wild … even or especially in your backyard or the woods … know what you’re doing. This isn’t a hobby for guesswork. Keep growing.