Monday, December 6, 2010

After a long wait, mushrooms crop up at last

Fresh picked shiitakes!
And another mushroom still growing

Simply Living
(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel December 5, 2010)

What a surprise! After two years of waiting — long enough to have just about given up — the oak logs that my husband seeded with mushroom spores have produced a small crop of shiitake mushrooms. My son Timmy discovered them sprouting from the pile of stacked logs.

"Look what we've got!" Ralph said, as I came into the kitchen still drowsy with sleep. I knew something was going on from the sound of slamming doors and excited voices during the normally sedate pre-breakfast hour.

"Timmy found all these shiitakes growing on the logs," Ralph announced, holding out a plateful of round, brown mushroom caps ranging in diameter from 3 to 6 inches.

Shiitakes are Ralph's favorite mushroom. For years he has been eating both fresh and dried versions of this historically prized, nutritionally rich fungus. It has been a long time, however, since he has had a homegrown supply.

Shiitake mushrooms originated in Asia and have been around since prehistoric times. For thousands of years, Chinese and Japanese farmers have cultivated shiitakes on logs cut from the "shii" tree, a medium-size evergreen related to beech and oaks.

Ancient peoples noted the mushroom's numerous health benefits, and recent research supports many of those traditional claims. Low-fat, high-protein shiitakes are an excellent source of vitamins and minerals. These qualities have not been overlooked by my health-conscious husband.

"I wonder if that's all we'll get or if it's just the beginning," Ralph mused while trimming off the bulbous stem ends and brushing away a small spider hiding on the white underside of a mushroom cap.

My husband's uncertainty is understandable. He hasn't had a reliable mushroom crop since we left Cape Cod. In the late 1980s, Ralph took a three-day mushroom growing course at Fungi Perfecti, a family-owned company in Washington State founded 30 years ago by Paul Stamets. Stamets is renowned mycologist, a scientist who specializes in mushrooms.

Ralph returned from that hands-on workshop with his mushroom fervor at full throttle, revved up and ready to establish his own supply of edible fungi.

Back on the Cape, he felled some large oak branches and drilled many small holes to receive the inch-long dowels containing the shiitake spores, or spawn. Less than a year later (spawn mature at 6 to 18 months), he was sautéing his own homegrown mushrooms with olive oil and garlic in an cast-iron pan. The logs continued to produce a bumper crop of brown-capped beauties for several years.

Then we moved to a completely different climate.

Ralph assumed that without an extended cold period, shiitakes wouldn't grow in Central Florida, so he didn't try to establish a colony. For the past two decades, we relied on fresh shiitakes purchased locally and on dried mushrooms ordered from an online supplier.

My husband's mycological musings started anew when he read an article about a Floridian with a backyard shiitake mushroom operation. Inspired by that farmer's success, Ralph decided to try again. While waiting for shiitake plugs to arrive from Fungi Perfecti, he cut up oak logs and readied them for seeding. That was two years ago. Until this week, the only mushrooms he had harvested were two or three small specimens, barely enough to provide a satisfying meal for one.

Only time will tell if the logs will continue to produce a crop. I hope they do. Growing your own food is satisfying on so many levels. Not only do you savor the incomparable flavor of homegrown edibles and enjoy the nutritional benefits of eating the freshest food possible but you see how each type of food grows. By watching their development, you get to know plants. You even become familiar with whatever little bugs, butterflies or, in the case of shiitake mushrooms, tiny spiders find those crops attractive.

With shiitake mushrooms — at least with those spawn that manage to establish a colony — the process of producing your own food is as basic as it comes. Choose logs. Drill holes. Insert seed plugs. Seal holes. Provide a shady, moist location. Sit back and wait.

But be forewarned: By the time you're ready to give up all hope that you'll ever reap a harvest …surprise! Shiitake mushrooms for supper, homegrown and delicious!

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