Miraculous Mushrooms!

For our September 11th KCMG program, Hugh Brewer (BrewersMushrooms.com) will share information about the nutritional and medicinal values of fungi and how to cultivate some of them. I attended his August class in Sevierville to meet him and learn more about the topic.

(A video from one of his classes is here: Brewers.) The fact that I would leave his class with a log inoculated with shiitake mushroom spawn that should yield shiitake mushrooms for five to seven years was certainly an incentive, too. Hugh recently spoke to the Sevier County Master Gardeners, and said they were very enthusiastic and kept him for hours with questions about medicinal uses for the different mushrooms. He described his mushroom cultivation as a “labor of love,” so I’m sure he enjoyed the questions and hope he’ll enjoying meeting with us, too.

When I arrived at Brewers Mushrooms, I was expecting a storefront, but what I found was a very large, climate-controlled storage unit with a mushroom-growing operation inside. There were rows of wooden shelves holding plastic bags filled with moist straw with mushrooms growing out from small holes in the bags. They were very beautiful and, as there’s no soil, they were all perfectly clean. At that time, he had oyster, shiitake, and brown mushrooms in various stages of growth.

I learned that I knew even less than the little that I thought I knew about mushrooms. Living in “mushroom country,” the Pacific Northwest, for a couple of years, morel mushrooms were often available, but I am really only used to regularly eating common button mushrooms and Portabellas.

I learned from Hugh that neither buttons nor Portabellas are especially nutritious, and eating common button mushrooms raw (as they are typically offered in salad bars across the country) could actually be harmful, as they contain various hydrazines, which are considered carcinogens (www.mykoweb.com). However, these disappear upon cooking. According to Hugh, “Turkey Tail mushrooms are the leading cure for cancer in the world, other than chemo, radiation, and surgical removal.”

Hugh worked in telecommunications until he moved to Tennessee. To learn about cultivating mushrooms, he went to Washington State twice to study under the highly regarded Paul Stamets, “an American mycologist, author, and advocate of bioremediation and medicinal mushrooms” (wikipedia.org/Paul_Stamets). I had no idea how much microbiology was involved. Hugh learned tissue culture, spawn generation techniques, sub-strate preparation, inoculation techniques, and strategies for maximizing yields. He also learned about the various processes of Mycorestoration (AccessScience.com), and how to choose appropriate fungi for it. Mycorestoration uses the web-like tissue of mushroom-forming fungi to capture and degrade environmental pollutants. Being low-cost, low-impact, needing relatively little installation space, it has potential to help municipal storm water managers meet the Clean Water Act. Hugh has hands-on experience in applying mycelium and designing fungal responses to catastrophic oil spills. I also had no idea there were so many uses for mushrooms.

To make my own “shiitake farm,” Hugh had me drill holes in a fresh-cut white oak log, then use a tool to fill the holes with moist sawdust that contained shiitake spores. Then I covered the filled holes with sterile sealing wax to keep out contaminants, while the spores developed. I was disappointed to learn that it would probably be 8 – 10 months before my first “crop” came in, but Hugh gave us a bag of beautiful oyster mushrooms, so we had some “instant gratification” to enjoy with dinner that evening.

Shiitakes are native to Japan, China, and Korea, where they have been cultivated for over 1,000 years. They have been cultivated in the U.S. only for about 25 years. Shiitake mushrooms contain all of the essential amino acids, and have been shown to lower cholesterol, boost immunity, and fight off viruses. When exposed to sunlight, they actually form and store Vitamin D. Typical shiitake mushrooms contain 100 IU/100g of Vitamin D, but when exposed, gills-up, to 12 hours of sunlight, the Vitamin D content soars to 46,000 IU/100g, or 7,667% of the USDA DRI (www.fungi.com). Wowza!

Besides tasting good, it was fascinating to learn some of the medicinal uses for shiitakes from Hugh. It was hard for me to take so much new information in, so I researched it some when I got home. I found that, “Preliminary laboratory research has indicated shiitake mushroom may stimulate the immune system, possess antibacterial properties, reduce platelet aggregation, and possess antiviral properties” (n.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shiitake).

Mushrooms are fungi, and are uniquely different from plants, just like we animals are. Surprisingly though, animals and fungi are in the same super-kingdom, Opisthokonta. And these fungi help us animals ward off bacteria, viruses, and other diseases.

This made me think of one of my father’s favorite silly sayings:

At ease, disease, there’s a fungus among us!

I guess there really is something to that saying after all! And there is nothing wrong (and a lot right) with having “fungus among us!”