Do any of you feel mushrooms don’t belong in a garden? Read any book or catalogue by Paul Stamets, and you’ll learn that mushrooms are already in your garden, in the form of mycorrhizae in the soil.
The word ‘mycorrhizal’ means root fungus (mykes is Greek for fungus, and rhiza is Greek for root). Mycorrhizae are the prefruiting stage of certain kinds of mushrooms: tiny, threadlike webs networking their way through every healthy soil, an enormous microscopic (I always wanted to use those two in a sentence together) network which protects plants from disease and allows them to send nutrients and water to each other, according to need. The Fungi Perfecti catalogue says that plants connected to this network also take up several hundreds or thousands of times more water and nutrients than they do without mycorrhizae. (Fungi Perfecti is the business side of Stamets’s mushroom venture, and helps fund an incredible range of research and teaching.)
All over the world, underground networks of mycorrhizae keep life afloat. Forests are dependent on thriving mycorrhizae. Without them, we have no healthy plant communities. Without healthy plants, we have no air to breathe and no food to eat. So these microscopic beings are very important parts of our lives. We may have to broaden our views of organic life to fully understand the world of fungi, which is also our world. **
Unfortunately, industrial land-clearing and farming methods kill off these invisible, vital members of our plant communities. The best thing would be to think about better ways to do our clearing and farming, so we preserve our local blends and varieties of mycorrhizae. But meanwhile, we can start remediation in our gardens, by buying jars or packets of powdered mycorrhizae blends, and mixing them into our soil, starting a new network. Or we can get fertilizers with mycorrhizae in them, which is how I got my own introduction to what mycorrhizae can do in a garden. Suddenly my container plants looked fuller, greener, happier, and they seemed to take stress better, too. I’ve grown invisible fungus ever since.
But Stamets doesn’t just want us to have microscopic underground mushrooms. He’s also a missionary of big mushrooms in gardens. We can naturalize medicinal and edible mushrooms in woodland gardens, and grow edible mushrooms in with our vegetables: Garden Oyster mushrooms (Hypsizygus ulmarius) unlock nutrients from organic debris to feed underlying plants -and they’re reportedly delicious to eat. (I buy another species of oyster mushroom to cook with, and they have a lovely mild flavor and tender texture.) We can also grow mushrooms as a crop, establishing a morel patch (it can take a few years), or growing King Stropharia (Stropharia rugos-annulata), a mushroom that thrives in a huge range of temperatures on waste products like sawdust and wood chips, and fruits delicious mushrooms as big as five pounds.
Growing mushrooms in our gardens is a huge innovation in mushroom culture, which often requires painstaking and esoteric methods to work. A local mushroom grower once told me that he had to imitate thunderstorms in his mushroom growing area, so his mushrooms would fruit. Other typical mushroom-culture equipment includes sterile growing rooms, agar cultures, and matching the right growing media and techniques to each mushroom variety.
Growing Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms goes deep into the strange cultures of the mushroom world, and it is here that we find out some of King Stropharia’s weird, secretive habits. King Stropharia mushrooms are bountiful, beautiful, and delicious, Stamets starts off, giving a few informal recipes to show he really enjoys them, and isn’t just talking theoretically. But he also reveals a deeper layer of the generous stropharia personality: eating them for more than two or three days in a row suppresses the enzymes we use to digest them.
For those who don’t understand how this might be a problem, Stamets offers a cautionary tale. A friend of his became enchanted by the mushrooms, once they were introduced: he grew them, ate them frequently, made new recipes for them. At last he culminated his love by throwing a huge summer garden party for King Stropharia, so that all of his friends would know the mushroom he honored with his love. He indulged that love privately also, eating the mushrooms as he cooked; by the time of the party, he had been partaking of King Stropharia for three days. While his other guests enjoyed the succulent fungus, he became violently ill. “To this day, he now views King Stropharia (and me) with great suspicion,” Stamets concludes. (pg. 338)
The mushroom at the top of this post was growing in the woods near my house. It’s probably edible, but all I could figure out is that it’s some kind of bolete, narrowing it down to a few thousand choices. It’s certainly past its prime, as you can tell by looking at the yellowing drying spongy bit (my mushroom botany is pretty primitive) underneath the cap.
I have been on a few local mushroom hunts, but I don’t trust myself to identify more than a few varieties. I don’t play around with mushrooms. It could be deadly, or at least really sickening. My hope is that by going on more hunts and hanging out with mushroom hunters, I’ll build my mushroom vocabulary. Another way I hope to improve my mushroom knowledge is by cultivating them. That way, I can be sure of the variety, and learn more about the different forms of each mushroom. I’ve already ordered some plugs and a kit of different mushrooms. I’ll be reporting more later.
*My title is derived from the title of one of Eleanor Cameron’s whimsical 1950s science fiction books, The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet, available through Fungi Perfecti. Her books are supposed to be juvenile fiction, but they’re fun for older juveniles, too.
**For an impassioned and thorough explanation of the mycorrhizal network, take a look at the Las Pilatas Nursery site.