Eric Osborne has been a mushroom fan for years. Lately, the former language arts teacher has been transforming his hobby of growing and cloning mushrooms into a business, Magnificent Mushrooms, that hopefully will soon be able to supply a local distributor with 200 pounds of gourmet fungi each week.
"I'm a mushroom nerd," Osborne explained. "Growing mushrooms is the way I can use the knowledge and skill I have to benefit people."
Certain mushroom varieties are highly nutritious and some possess significant medicinal value. However, the button mushrooms at your local supermarket won't win points for either nutrition or medicinal value, and Osborne doesn't bother with them. He grows shiitake and oyster mushrooms as well as more exotic varieties, including reishi and lion's mane.
"Mushrooms are the best non-animal source of Vitamin D," he observed. "Drying them in the sun can boost vitamin D content by 100% or more. And certain other mushrooms are turning out to be major anti-carcinogens. Several instances in which the medicinal value of mushrooms was discovered were due to mushroom growers ingesting them and having very low incidences of cancer."
Mycelium's reproductive organ
Although it's relatively easy to grow mushrooms from kits, cloning them requires lab-quality hygiene, specialized equipment and lots of patience. Unlike vascular plants that grow above the ground, fungi grow underground in the form of spreading networks of thread-like mycelia. Mushrooms are merely the mycelium's reproductive organ, designed to scatter spores. In order to grow mushrooms you must first grow mycelium.
To do this, Osborne clones and grows fungi cultures on agar inside sterile petri dishes. Two weeks later he uses those cultures to inoculate bags of sterilized grain placed inside a dark room that is kept at 75 degrees. Over the next two weeks the contents of each bag become overrun with white mycelia.
Once the mycelium is sufficiently mature, the grains are transferred to the final fruiting substrate: sterilized sawdust or woodchips. After another two weeks of incubation, the various kinds of mycelium on their substrates are either suspended from the ceiling like punching bags or placed on shelves inside a room that has 24-hour light and 90% humidity. Within a few days, clusters of mushrooms begin to thrust their heads out into the air in every direction, awaiting harvest.
Osborne speaks of fungi with respect, even reverence.
"Fungi is the world's first or second oldest organism, and also the single largest organism in the world," he emphasized. The renowned mushroom researcher and author Paul Stamets has identified a 2400-acre area of Oregon that is inhabited by a single mycelium that could be more than 2000 years old.
Osborne was captivated by nature, and by mushrooms, from childhood.
"When I was a kid in the first or second grade, I learned the genus species names of all the native snakes in Kentucky," he recalled. "Snakes are scary but they're also beautiful. Mushrooms are similarly scary, but you can eliminate the element of fear through knowledge. Mushrooms and snakes appear together quite a lot in the woods, and both of them are inextricably linked in human history and religion. There is a strong argument that the manna from Heaven in the Old Testament was the desert puffball, also called the desert truffle. When broken open it looks just like a loaf of bread with a crust. It comes with the dew and it withers with the sun, and you can only eat it within a single day, for it will breed worms and stink, just like it says in the Bible.
"Mushrooms were the food of angels in that story, and they were also the food of the gods around the world in shamanistic traditions."
Beware of poisonous specimens
Osborne taught himself to hunt for edible mushrooms but stressed that identifying wild mushrooms is something that should be done with great care. Some mushrooms are easily identifiable as edible or poisonous, but other varieties can be easily confused.
"I always make it a point to remind people that there are mushrooms out there that will kill you in excruciating ways, so be SURE before you eat anything," Osborne emphasized, identifying an excellent site to identify mushrooms online is mushroomexpert.com. "But you should do a spore print to be certain of identification. Velvet Foot is a good edible mushroom, but it's quite similar to the poisonous Galerina. The edible one has white spores and the poisonous one has rusty brown spores."
After growing mushrooms for several years as a hobby, Osborne experienced a vision of his long-deceased grandfather, who had not grown mushrooms but was a renowned farmer. His grandfather reminded him that agriculture is in his blood, and that he should use his skill to help others, and Osborne obeyed. He now leads workshops that allow adults and children to identify wild mushrooms and to grow the easier varieties at home.
"Oyster and shiitake mushrooms are ideal beginner's mushrooms because they grow easily and are easy to recognize," Osborne said. "Mushrooms are a great way for kids to get started in gardening. They love it when the mushrooms start fruiting because they go from the size of a pea to the size of a plate in four days. Then the kids get on Facebook and are all excited about their mushrooms!"
A spiritual vocation
Mushroom bags filled with ripened spawn will be available at the workshop. Participants will also be able to make their own shiitake mushroom logs by hammering wooden plugs inoculated with mushroom spawn into holes drilled into hardwood logs.
In the coming months Osborne hopes to build larger rooms for inoculation and fruiting. He sells considerable quantities of mushrooms to restaurants in Louisville but can't keep up with the demand. He hopes to build a new 50 x 25-foot grow room soon, and he wants to experiment with making his own mycorrhizal formulas, since gardeners have discovered that plants do better when certain strains of symbiotic mycorrhizae are introduced into the soil. Stamets has discovered that certain strains of mycelia appear to have the ability to negate heavy metals and other toxic contamination in soil, and Osborne would like to explore this avenue of research.
Growing fungi is not just a business opportunity for Osborne. It's also a spiritual vocation, an act of faith.
"Mushrooms are so overlooked, yet they're so important," he summed up. "Mushrooms have had such an enormous impact upon who we are as human beings. In ancient Greece, the name of the Myceneans means 'the mushroom people.' How did all this get lost? As mushrooms are our closest relative outside the animal kingdom, they take us back into ancient history.
"Re-discovering their essential place in agriculture and food/medicine helps to build us a brighter future. They are a completion of the cycle in more ways than one."