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). 

When You Can’t Stop Bringing Up Fungi in Casual Conversations

Imagine if you went out bird watching and half the birds didn’t have names. That’s where we are with fungi according to mycologist Noah Siegel. Fungi are essential for life on this planet, but since they are mostly out of site and out of mind they don’t get the credit or protection due to them.

Siegel delivered an entertaining lecture at this year’s Los Angeles Mycological Society Mushroom Fair this past weekend. He emphasized the important role amateurs can play simply through photography and posting reports in apps like iNaturalist.

When Siegel was asked about the medicinal benefits of certain mushrooms he responded by saying that, “there’s a lot of snake oil out there.” Amen to that. I have to say I’ve become increasingly frustrated with some in the mycology sphere who are more interested in self promotion than in exploring the fungal world in all its majesty and complexity. Comrades, we need better science popularizers!

I also had the privilege of taking a cultivation class the day before the fair taught by Peter McCoy. He taught us a cultivation technique invented by an amateur Robert McPherson, aka Psylocybe Fanaticus, that makes use of sterilized mason jars to inoculate grain. McPherson’s method, which he calls PF Tek, allows you to propagate fungi in your kitchen without a lot of expensive lab equipment. You do need a pressure canner which I’m lobbying the administration here at Root Simple to let me order.

Odds are there’s a mycological society near you. While it’s interesting to grow mushrooms and forage for edible species it’s also just plain fun to look at them wherever they are, in the woods, in a garden or in an alley.

If you’re a local, the LA Mycological society has a very cool reading group run by Aaron Thompson. It’s free and you can sign up here.

A Low-Tech Experiment in Growing Oyster Mushrooms

My furniture making hobby produces a mountain of sawdust and wood chips. Some of it I give to neighbors who have cabins with composting toilets. A lot of it I have to throw out.

A few months ago a light bulb went off. I mostly produce oak sawdust which just happens to be one of the ideal substrates for growing mushrooms. While I love looking at mushrooms and attending lectures about mushrooms via the Los Angeles Mycological Society, I don’t know anything about growing them and my two previous attempts were complete failures.

Techniques for growing mushroom range from simple to extremely high tech. For this experiment I wanted to try the simplest method I could find that would not require buying equipment, plastic bags or maintaining a temperature and humidity controlled indoor environment. Put simply, I wanted to try growing mushrooms outdoors on oak sawdust in Southern California, a region not known for growing mushrooms.

I asked a few friends who know much more about growing mushrooms than I do. They all suggested trying oyster mushrooms since this species easily out-competes molds and other organisms that try to colonize the substrate.

I ordered a four pound bag of blue oyster grain spawn from North Spore. Following the instructions on Fresh Cap Mushroom’s YouTube channel, I poked 1/4 inch holes in the sides of a five gallon bucket and 1/8 inch holes in the bottom to drain excess water. The white oak I used mostly came out my planer and jointer, both of which produce thin chips of wood that get sucked up by my dust collector.

On January 4th, I put the chips in a plastic bin and soaked them in boiling water to pasteurize them and give the oyster mushroom spawn a better chance of growing. I let the wood chips soak overnight. The next day I squeezed excess water out of the chips and put them in my holey (holy?) bucket, alternating layers of wood chips and spawn. I placed the bucket outside under the dense shade of our avocado tree. You can also, by the way, use straw instead of wood chips.

By January 18th the oyster mushrooms were “pinning,” that is, beginning to fruit out of the 1/4 inch holes. On January 27th, I harvested my first cluster of mushrooms. I can report that blue oyster mushrooms are delicious, with a concentrated umami/super-mushroomy flavor.

One curious thing: the mushrooms I harvested look more like the Italian Oyster mushrooms that North Spore sells, so I wonder if a mix-up happened. I’ve written North Spore for a clarification. [Editors note: North Spore got back to me and they say that these are blue oyster and the the Italian oyster has a wavier cap.]

This was my third and only successful attempt at growing mushrooms. The spawn cost $28 and I’ve harvested about 2 pounds of mushrooms so I can’t call this experiment a financial success just yet, though it looks like I might get a second flush out of the bucket. Financial considerations aside, the mushrooms were so delicious that I am definitely going to try this experiment again. Towards that end I’m taking a class this month with mushroom expert Peter McCoy.

Working backwards to the more involved processes of growing your own spawn and developing your own strains is, I’m guessing, the best way to make this more sustainable. I may try growing some pink oyster mushrooms, though I’ve heard mixed reports about flavor. McCoy is sending us home with kits so I’ll report back on how those grow.

Slime Molds: You Are Weird but You Probably Know That

Trichia decipiens. Photo: National Parks Service.

You really should join your local mycological society. How else could you have your mind blown by an entire evening devoted to slime molds?

Such was the case last night when Kelly and I found ourselves entranced by a riveting Los Angeles Mycological Society Zoom lecture exploring the little known world of this odd, tiny organism. You too can and should watch the lecture by mushroom ethusiast and slime mold nerd Leah Bendlin.

Ceratiomyxa fruticulosa var. poroides. Photo: National Parks Service.

Yes this was a mycological Society lecture but slime molds are no longer lumped in with fungi. While they both produce spores, slime molds have membranes made of cellulose as opposed to fungi, which are made from chitin. Slime molds belong to the Kingdom Protista, a weird and diverse branch of the life tree that also includes seaweed and amoeba.

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Slime molds have never had their 15 minutes of fame and, as a result, few except “dog vomit” slime molds have popular names. The rest are the obsession of highly specialized academics who own microscopes. This is a shame as Leah Bendlin’s talk showed a mind bending set of ravishing images. She also has a “slime mold Sunday” feature on her Instagram @leah_mycelia.

Put plainly, slime molds are just super cool to look at even if you’ll never master the details of their taxonomy and their outre life cycle. They can, apparently, even solve mazes. You can find them on all continents and they pop up even in dry places such as where we live. A dog vomit variety regularly appears in a crack on our front stairs.

Many thanks to friend of the blog Aaron who encouraged me to rejoin the Los Angeles Mycological society and runs the awesome LA Mycological society book club!