Chicken of the Woods 2022

September in Southern California brings heat waves, fires and smog. The one ray of light is the appearance of chicken of the woods mushrooms (Laetiporus gilbertsonii is the species we have here) a delicious and easy to identify fungus whose favorite host in our neighborhood is the carob tree (Ceratonia siliqua).

One needs to set realistic expectations when it comes to finding edible mushrooms in our dry climate. To take a walk and simply enjoy the sight of fruiting mushrooms should be enough but, being human, FOMO and greed inevitably set in. Anything humans like to eat will be popular with all manner of non-human species. That and our dry climate make this place not exactly a Mecca for edible mushrooms.

This year a freak rain caused mold growth on the chicken of the woods that I harvested from my friend Lee’s backyard tree. There were also tiny mushrooms growing on the mushrooms (!). You have to hand it to nature to evolve a decomposing mushroom to decompose the decomposer.

Better luck next year, I suppose.

See last year’s post for more information on Laetiporus gilbertsonii.

Growing Pink Oyster Mushrooms

Since this winter I’ve been experimenting with growing edible mushrooms both indoors and outdoors. Recently, I joined forces with a few other interested folks to attempt a technique called PF Tek that we learned about in a class taught by Peter McCoy. We grew oyster mushrooms, the Angelyne of fungi.

Growing oyster mushrooms is a four step process:

  1. Harvest spores or clone tissue and grow out in a petri dish. This must be done in a sterile environment, usually with a laminar flow hood. I have not tried this yet and it’s the most difficult part of growing mushrooms. Thankfully you can skip this step by purchasing liquid culture online.
  2. Take your liquid culture and inoculate grain, in mason jars, sterilized in a pressure canner. Someone in our little growing group purchased the liquid culture for around $10 for a syringe that was more than enough to inoculate 14 pint jars .
  3. When the grain in the jars is fully colonized, you use it to inoculate bags of straw that have been pasteurized in hot water. I think we ended up with something like 16 small bags of straw divided between our group.
  4. Keep the bags inoculated in step 3 in a humid environment with some indirect light and wait for them to fruit.

This all sounds a lot harder than it actually was. Oyster mushrooms have a reputation for easily out-competing molds that can tank other mushrooms. The culture we used in step 2 aggressively colonized the grain (we used sorghum bird seed called milo) as well as the straw. If anything the problem I had is that it went faster than I expected. Once the jars are colonized you have to move the grain to straw. Nature has a tendency not to care about human schedules.

Hot Pink Results
Some observations from this last experiment. We chose pink oyster mushrooms because they tolerate heat and will grow well at this time of year here in sunny and hot Southern California. I can report that, despite what some have told me, pink oyster mushrooms are delicious and do, in fact, have a vague ham or bacon flavor. While they lose their vibrant pink color when you heat them, they are still a colorful yellow hue after cooking.

So far I’ve grown pearl, blue and pink oyster mushrooms. My favorite for flavor and texture was the pearl oyster but the other two are a very close second. I’m going to grow pink oyster mushrooms again soon and like that you can grow them here in the summer.

I need to improve step 4. The difficulty with getting mushrooms to fruit is that they benefit from humidity and oxygen–you can’t just put them in a bag with no ventilation. While I’ve grown mushrooms outside without any kind of humidity control, I think I’d get bigger mushrooms with some kind of fruiting chamber. A lot of people make what’s called a Martha, named after a Martha Stewart mini greenhouse. I’m of two minds about this kind of thing. I’d like slightly better results but also like to avoid gadgets and plastic. But with three successful growing experiments, I’m leaning towards the Martha.

I might try growing pink oyster mushrooms on the oak sawdust I generate in my woodshop. I grew blue oyster on sawdust and I found it easier to work with than the straw. Straw has to be shredded and I found it hard to pre-moisten and pasteurize. With the sawdust I just poured boiling water over it in a tote and let it cool overnight. But I’ve also heard some say that oyster mushrooms grow better on straw. I guess I need to do a side by side experiment and find out.

While it was handy to have an outdoor area to shred the straw, one of the things I like about growing mushrooms is that you can do it in an apartment. I’ll also add that it was fun to do it with a group of friends. We got together to do the pressure canner step together and I was able to use my backyard to shred straw for the folks who didn’t have outdoor space.

The Great Water Conservation Grift

Governor Gavin Newsom shoveling something with Stewart and Lynda Resnick. Source: CalTech.

For many years we’ve been in a drought here in California as a result of climate change. In response our elected officials, through the mainstream media, push out a message of water rationing in cities. Here in Los Angeles we’ve all been asked to restrict watering to two days a week.

There’s no doubt that we’d all benefit from ditching lawns in favor of native and low-water landscapes. However, I believe these calls for household water conservation are a kind of misdirection from what’s really going on. In short, we as individuals are being blamed for a water shortage that would be better attributed to a class of Central Valley agricultural oligarchs whose profligate water use dwarfs what we use for our urban landscapes.

Journalist Yasha Levine did a superb story on the unholy relationship between governor Gavin Newsom and billionaire pistachio/pomegrante/Fiji Water oligarchs Stewart and Lynda Resnick that deserves more attention. Levine details a hustle typical for our billionaire class. The Resnicks launder their destructive, extractive capitalism through “philanthropic” schemes, in their case things like art museums and a “sustainability center” at the California Institute of Technology. Of course, they are also generous donors to politicians such as Newsom. Here’s now Levine describes Newsom’s trip to the opening of that sustainability center,

“Philanthropists” is an interesting way for the Governor of California to describe one of the most powerful forces in farming in the state — a billionaire family that owns something like 300 square miles of Oligarch Valley land, has its own toxic corporate farm worker town, and, from their ridiculous mansion in Beverly Hills, has been on a destructive quest to eviscerate the state’s river system and plunder its aquifers, helping fuel a mass extinction in the San Francisco Bay Delta…all so they can grow and export pistachios, a fringe snack food that people around here barely eat.

But then calling these rapacious oligarchs “philanthropists” is exactly the point. Governor Gavin was going out to Pasadena to do some public relations work: to lend his name and image and the respectably of his public office to Stewart and Lynda Resnick’s ongoing effort to rebrand themselves as do-gooders and environmentalists, rather than the industrial-scale destroyers of the environment that they are.

Levine also notes the irony of a family that exports water from Fiji and even had a journalist deported for digging around into their sleazy business practices in that country.

In addition to the misdirection issue, hastily conceived water conservation policies have gone poorly when it comes to our urban landscapes. Take, for instance, LA’s horrible lawn replacement rebate program that ended up in the hands of fly by night operators who exploited their workers and left us with acres of gravel and plastic lawns. Or, since most homeowners don’t have any understanding of climate or horticulture, we just get dead lawns or, at best, decomposed granite and a few sad cacti. Coastal California is not a desert yet, and our landscapes can be both lush and not use a lot of water. Plus we might want to use water for things like parks, schools and athletic fields especially when that use is small compared to what the Resnicks extract to make their billions.

My big fear is that, while technically the water restrictions don’t apply to trees, in practice people withhold water from trees and we end up with a further destruction of our already stressed urban tree canopy. Our cities get hotter and the Resnicks get richer.

In the Zone

I went on a Los Angeles Mycological Society mushroom foray with Bat Vardeh of Foraging and Mushroom Hunting Women of SoCal, on the 9th way up in the Angeles Forest. It was the most gnomecore thing I’ve done in a long time.

We traversed an area dramatically altered by the Bobcat fire of 2020, giving our gnomecore revelries a bit of a post-apocalypse vibe. But amidst the destruction we found mushrooms that thrive in burn zones. The fire vaporized whole trees leaving nothing but a pit where roots used to be. In fact you could follow the negative space of those vaporized roots in the landscape. Within these crevices tiny mushrooms have started the work of transforming the burned remains of the forest into a new landscape.

One thing I learned on this walk is that children are the best mushroom hunters. One particularly enthusiastic kid found the first mushroom and consistently, throughout the day, found more and more. I think it’s because children don’t have the filters on sensory inputs that we adults have. They welcome sensory chaos and don’t yet have the fully formed defenses we adults have to filter, classify and, at worst, ignore the wonder around us.

We didn’t’ find any edible mushrooms, though morels pop up fleetingly in similar burn sites. But I’m happy to look at any mushroom and edibles are just the icing on the cake.

In addition to mushrooms, the fire revealed opportunities for an archeology of late capitalism. Here a Wizard Charcoal Lighter can from maybe the early 1970s washed down from the nearby Buckhorn campground.

And a vintage Pepsi can, also from the early 70s. If only the fungi could learn to metabolize these things but I’m afraid we’re stuck with them.

More on mushrooms in burn areas.

Mushroom Mania

A little over a month ago I took a hands-on mushroom cultivation class taught by Peter McCoy. He sent us home with a bag of straw inoculated with pearl oyster mushroom spawn and a bag of sawdust inoculated with reishi mushroom spawn. Yesterday we harvested the first bunch of pearl oyster mushrooms and it looks like the reishi is about to fruit.

In the class, McCoy showed us how to handle liquid mushroom cultures in a low-tech technique called PF Tek invented by Robert McPherson, aka Psylocybe Fanaticus. McCoy will speak at the next meeting of the Los Angeles Mycological Society on Monday, March 21st at 7:30 p.m. via a livestream you can access on YouTube.

The oyster mushrooms we’ve grown this winter have been so delicious that I’m going to get myself a pressure canner and get the PF Tek method happening at the Root Simple compound.

What’s great is that you don’t need a yard to grow mushrooms. We grew this batch of oyster mushroom in the bathroom and affectionately call them the “bathroom mushrooms.”

At over 3,500 posts on this blog we sometime get amnesia here at Root Simple. I completely forgot that McCoy was a guest on episode 77 of our podcast, currently on hiatus (I have thoughts about bringing it back, by the way).