Fascinating fungi

PAUL SMITHS – Two juniors at Paul Smith’s College are exploring the potential for a new North Country crop.

Budding scientists Brittney Bell and Evan White are two years into an independent study on shiitake strains of mushrooms to determine which grow best in colder climates. On April 19, the pair took part in “Holy Shiitake,” an all-day, Adirondack Mycology Club-hosted workshop at the VIC where participants could select and inoculate their own shiitake mushroom log.

The independent study began in spring 2012 with the club’s first shiitake cultivating workshop. Most of the logs from that inoculation started producing mushrooms this year.

“Spawn runs typically take 12 to 18 months to begin fruiting,” White said. “After that, they’ll fruit every year until the log has decomposed, which can take several more years.”

The fruit is another way of saying mushrooms, which are actually the fruiting body of the fungus and not the fungus itself. As the logs begin to bear fruit, Bell and White hope to uncover the ideal shiitake-strain-and-type-of-wood combination for cultivating the mushrooms in this region.

“There are a few farmers up in Potsdam who have started trying this, but no one has actually studied the growth parameters,” White said. “There’s a lot of shiitake cultivation in the southern states and not so much up north, but a week ago we had logs that we inoculated two years ago that were fruiting, and it was only 40 degrees.”

In southern states, oak logs are a common cultivation choice, but those are rare this far north. Bell and White are searching for a viable substitute and are experimenting with a variety of Adirondack hardwoods. They will use the harvest from each tree species to help them determine which is best.

White said logs should be at least 3 to 6 inches in diameter. Since the wood provides the nutrients the fungi need to grow, dense wood provides more fuel for a longer period of time.

The mushrooms also need to spring forth from the bark. Thick bark can hinder mushroom growth while thin bark, like that found on a paper birch, can easily peel away, opening the door for mold or non-desirable fungi to begin growing and competing for the limited resources the log provides.

White said some shiitakes, like the Jupiter strain, can fruit in temperatures as low as 30 degrees. He said a strain like that might enable North Country farmers and woodlot owners to use their scrap wood to start their own shiitake farms.

For some, growing backyard shiitakes is just a hobby, but for farmers, the harvest could yield some extra cash. Organic shiitake mushrooms can sell for $10 an ounce. A decent-sized woodlot could provide fodder for thousands of shiitake mushrooms annually. Bell noted that, instead of selling tree limbs as firewood in exchange for a one-time profit, that wood could be used to cultivate mushrooms, which could still yield revenue five years later.

The shiitake harvest from the VIC will be donated to Paul Smith’s culinary classes for use in food preparation.

“There has been a real push for sustainability and locally-grown food on this campus, and this is another part of that,” White said. “It’s important to know where your food is coming from.”

The inoculation process is simple. First, a hardwood log is scrubbed clean to remove any potential contaminants, like lichen or moss.

Next, holes are drilled in a diamond-shaped pattern all over the log, and shiitake spores are injected into each hole using a special plunger that’s designed for that purpose. The more holes the log has, the stronger the fungal colony will be.

Once inoculated, the holes, as well as any other cracks or openings in the bark, are plugged with wax to help keep anything else from getting in. The logs are then stood up and leaned against something, like another tree, and the waiting begins for the sought-after mushrooms, which will emerge in a year or so.

Adirondack Mycology Club

The “Holy Shiitake” workshop was one of many fungi-based events hosted by the Adirondack Mycology Club throughout the year.

The club’s president, Hannah Huber, said the purpose of the club is to educate people on the importance of fungi in Adirondack ecosystems. There’s a lot to learn – mycology expert Susan Hopkins has identified more than 1,500 species in the Park, and that tally grows every year. Hopkins is also involved in the mycology club, and gives mushroom walks throughout the summer at the VIC.

“We do a lot of events, like the walks, the cultivation events and the art of fungi event we have every spring to show off people’s artwork,” Huber said. “We’re always expanding and making connections, like fungi do.”

Those connections are everywhere. Fungi is abundant beneath the forest floor and it thrives just out of sight in decomposing plants. Even though fungi is more than abundant, Huber said it is often overlooked for other life forms.

“People are really plant and animal obsessed,” Huber said. “When you read a book, it’s always plants and animals in nature. A lot of plants don’t grow without fungi. Lady slippers don’t grow without a mycorrhizal attachment, and a lot of conifers are mycorrhizal. Most plants in a forest are connected by fungi somehow.”

Mycorrhizal fungi colonize a plant’s roots and form a mutually beneficial relationship where nutrients are exchanged. The relationship can also help the host plant’s roots absorb more moisture, obtain nutrients in nutrient deficient soil and ward off diseases.

Huber said understanding those relationships can help people understand tree health, but non-ecosystem-based connections to fungi can also be made. Some mushrooms are edible, others are medicinal and some can be used to make dyes.

To shed some light on fungi usefulness, Huber is writing a 50-page online book called “Adirondack Applied Mycology.” The cover has a watercolor painting by Huber that depicts some cornflower bolete mushrooms, which stain blue when sliced. The inside of the book, which is not stained blue, will contain all sorts of information on mushroom cultivation, tea making and artwork.

The book will also contain information about peer-reviewed mycoremediation research, which is a field where fungi is used to remove toxins or radiation from an area. It will include a section on Huber’s own experience in a mycoremediation project at Smiling Hogshead Ranch in New York City.

“You can take a contaminated landscape, like where an oil spill happened or where heavy metals were deposited, and you can use fungi to clean that up,” Huber said. “Mushrooms in Chernobyl were found to hyper-absorb radiation and toxins, which makes them really toxic, but at the same time their pulling that out of the soil. If you collect the mushrooms and put them in a storage site, that’s a good way to clean the environment.”

Huber hopes to pursue mycoremediation studies in the future, and will likely stay “connected” to fungi her entire life. That’s not a surprise, as she is quick to remind us that we are all connected to fungi, whether we know it or not.

“I can never disconnect myself from fungi now,” Huber said. “We all live together with it. Mycoremediation is a developing field, but I think it has a lot of potential for remediating a lot of contamination all over the world.”

“Adirondack Applied Mycology” will be available online for free. For information on where it can be found, email huber at hhuber@s.paulsmiths.edu.

Contact Shaun Kittle at 891-2600 ext. 25 or skittle@adirondackdailyenterprise.com.