Mushrooms have seen a great increase in popularity in recent years. With this popularity comes an abundance of curiosity about how these unique organisms thrive in the wild. Mushrooms have been found growing organically in a variety of environments and under a range of circumstances that would be detrimental to the survival of nearly any other creature.
Traditionally, most western consumers have been fairly unfamiliar with the wide variety of mushroom types that are safe to consume. Button mushrooms are a frequent staple at the local salad bar, and portobellos are often a favorite entree, but the average person’s mushroom experience usually ends somewhere around there. Many children are also taught to avoid the poisonous mushroom toadstools that grow abundantly in so many front yards. This sometimes leads to an aversion towards all fungi. Unfortunately, this is a development so common that it has garnered its own term: mycophobia. And of course, we can’t talk about mushrooms without mentioning those that contain psilocybin. Often called “magic mushrooms”, this controversial category of fungi is known for its psychoactive properties, which can have both therapeutic and recreational applications. But these familiar types are just the tip of the mushroom iceberg!
Mushrooms are a ton of FUN(gus)!
Mushrooms, a type of fungi, are sometimes described as neither plant nor animal. Instead, they are described rather as a sort of hybrid, sharing characteristics with both. For many years, fungi were included as part of the Plantae kingdom. But in 1969, scientists determined that fungi required their own unique kingdom classification. Fungi are prevalent in all environments, often appearing as molds, yeasts, and of course, many different types of mushrooms.
Fungi have long been identified as eukaryotic organisms. This means that their DNA is found within a nucleus, surrounded by a membrane. But more recent technological advances in DNA sequencing have shown researchers that, genetically speaking, fungi actually have more in common with animals than they do with plants!
For example, unlike photosynthetic plants, fungi cannot produce their own food. Rather – similarly to members of the Animalia kingdom – fungi get their nutrition from organic material, including other organisms. But whereas animals ingest and then digest their food in order to absorb its nutrients, fungi secrete digestive enzymes into their environment. Then, they absorb the nutrients that are released! The study of fungi that led to this and many other discoveries is called Mycology, and is an ever-growing and evolving field. However, due to its history, much of the terminology used to describe members of the fungi family are remnants of their past association with the Plantae kingdom.
So wait… Mushrooms aren’t just another vegetable?!
Mushrooms and other species of fungi are truly unique. Unlike animals, fungi do not have a nervous system. However, their mycelial network, which works as a biochemical pathway for communication between individual organisms, is often compared to one. But unlike plants, the walls of a fungi cell contain chitin. This is a compound also found in the exoskeletons of crabs and some insects. Chitin is strong but flexible and is the reason why cooking mushrooms before eating is so necessary.
Fungi are also to thank for a huge portion of the decomposition that is vital to our planet’s ecosystem. Fungi are responsible for breaking down many types of complex organic matter. Without their help, forests would be consumed by un-decomposed woody debris.
There are approximately 12 million estimated individual species within the Fungi kingdom, making fungi second in diversity only to insects. They reproduce in a variety of ways. From self-cloning yeasts to the familiar “macroscopic filamentous fungi“, who reproduce via mushroom formation.
How do mushrooms grow?
Fungi are unique in many ways. We know that most plants reproduce through seeds. However, fungi is populated through the release and spread of spores or tissue culture. Each mushroom has a genetic collection that is unique to that mushroom, and in nature, every single mushroom releases countless spores containing this genetic information into its environment. Growing mushrooms from spores can be likened to attempting to sprout a bunch of seeds. The process is not always predictable, and no “child” crop will be a 100% copy of its “parent”.
In-home growing, we use the term “spawn” to refer to growing mediums. This includes things such as grain, sawdust, or manure that have been inoculated with mushroom spores. These spawn materials are ready to be mixed with a sterile mushroom growing substrate at home. This encourages and facilitates their reproduction and eventual growth into mushrooms. Alternatively, you can produce your own spawn at home by using liquid or tissue cultures to inoculate sterile substrate. For this process, adherence to strict sterile laboratory techniques is of utmost importance.
The most familiar cap-and-stem mushrooms are all members of the phylum Basidiomycota. All mushrooms in this phylum produce their spores outside of cells called basidia. Some more unfamiliar-looking mushrooms can be found in the phylum Ascomycota. This phylum includes cups, corals, and morels. Each of whom produces their spores internally, holding them in sac-like cells called asci.
Understanding Mushroom Reproduction
In nature, when a mushroom spore ends up in a habitable environment, it will germinate similarly to a seed, sending out a filamentous thread called a hypha. The fungi will grow from the tip of this hypha, like a bud responding to external stimuli. Though this process is not completely understood, scientists have theorized that it is directed by an organelle called the Spitzenkorper.
Next, the hyphae will begin creating a dendritic network in a process called branching. This network is referred to as mycelium, and you may be more familiar with it than you think. Mycelium is the white fuzzy growth we always hope to see forming on the top of our compost because it lets us know that our environment is encouraging healthy microbial growth! Mycelium will absorb water and nutrients from the environment and continue to grow. When one mycelium encounters another compatible mycelium (originating from a different spore), it will fuse and trade nuclei. The result of this is what is called a dikaryotic spore, meaning a spore that contains two sets of nuclei.
The new dikaryotic mycelium will continue spreading through its environment until it runs out of nutrients, or receives a signal to start fruiting. In nature, these signals are triggered by changes in temperature or heavy rainfall. Once the fruiting signal has been received, the mycelium condenses to form primordia. These are the tiniest of mushrooms and are often called “pins” in the growing community. Ideally, if conditions are habitable, these pins will grow into full-grown mushrooms with either basidia or asci, depending upon the type of mushroom being propagated. From here, new spores will be released and the process will continue.
Reproducing Mushrooms At Home
Growing mushrooms at home is not achieved through exactly the same process as their natural reproduction. However, understanding this process is critical to becoming a successful home grower. In-home growing, it is common to use tissue cultures to clone our mushrooms, instead of reproducing through individual spores.
For this process, if you are producing your own tissue cultures, it is critically important to only use fresh mushrooms. This is to ensure the mushroom tissue is still alive. To begin, a cut of fresh mushroom should be placed in sterilized growing media. From this point, the mushroom will begin to produce the hyphae that will turn into mycelium. When you buy a bag of inoculated substrate or “spawn”, you should expect it to be full of this mycelium. Though it can look similar to mold, it is actually this mycelium that will introduce and spread the fungal spores through the rest of your sterilized substrate.
When do mushrooms grow?
Any experienced forager will tell you, if you want to have the most successful experience, go foraging for mushrooms after heavy rainfall. Similarly to many plants, fungi will begin to develop mushrooms once it has been triggered to do so by its immediate environment. Every species of mushroom has its own biological clock and will respond to its own unique environmental cues, which are typically marked by changes in temperature and humidity.
The Region You Live In Matters
Before foraging or growing mushrooms, it would be wise to look into the types of mushrooms that grow wildly in your region, to determine when their growing season is, and what environmental conditions tend to trigger this growth. For example, in the Northeastern United States, most edible mushrooms in their region can be expected to fruit between May and October, correlating with times of substantial rainfall. However, in the Pacific Northwestern region of the US, the peak of most mushroom growth is typically between August and December.
Despite these trends, it is also common to see some hardier varieties of mushrooms fruiting year-round. Consulting an experienced local forager or a mushroom identification guide can be helpful in determining the fruiting patterns of mushrooms found in your particular region. But across all strains and locales, one common fact is that mushroom fruiting will follow heavy rainfall.
You may be wondering why we are focusing so much on the growth patterns of wild mushrooms when we’ve already established that home growing conditions will vary from those found in nature. However, as with any crop, it is immensely helpful to understand the organism’s biology in order to reproduce those ideal conditions and to adjust accordingly when inevitable challenges arise.
Different Climates, Different Mushrooms
Throughout the wide range of cultivated mushroom varieties, you will notice that different mushrooms will prefer different conditions. For instance, Pink Oyster mushrooms enjoy warmer temperatures, usually only fruiting when above 65 degrees Fahrenheit. On the contrary, Snow Oyster mushrooms prefer to stay on the cool side. Even though these are both types of “Oyster” mushrooms, their ideal conditions vary considerably. Similar variety can also be found among Shiitake mushrooms, as different strains have been intentionally bred for different climates.
At home, it is less common to grow mushrooms outdoors. Whereas the growth of wild mushrooms is controlled by environmental exposure, growing mushrooms at home usually involves filling sterilized containers with growing media and spawn, and maintaining carefully controlled conditions while the fungi fully colonize their growing substrate. Once the substrate is thoroughly covered in mycelium and the fungi have run out of nutrients and space needed to continue spreading, this will trigger the fruiting phase. In a more advanced home grow setup, you may choose to keep your container in a dedicated room with temperature and humidity controls adjusted to the ideal levels for that specific species. For smaller home grows, tents and monotubs can be beneficial for maintaining an ideal growing environment.
Where do mushrooms grow?
When discussing ideal growth conditions for mushrooms, a safe general rule of thumb is that mushrooms thrive in shady, humid areas. That said, we have probably all seen an errant mushroom or two in an unlikely place, such as sprouting up between cracks in the sidewalk. Often, determining where a mushroom will flourish is mostly a question of what the fungi is using for food and what role it plays in its environment.
Most types of fungi that can be cultivated at home are saprophytic fungi, which means they help to decompose organic material. Different types of mushrooms may specialize in the decomposition of specific materials, such as wood or manure. Mycorrhizal mushrooms are a bit different in that these types choose to pair up with a plant host, absorbing nutrients from the soil and depositing sugars for the plant’s use. Most of these types of mushrooms have evolved specifically to match a particular host, but some are more capable of partnering with a wide variety of plant hosts (these types are called “generalists”).
Foraging In The Wild
Again, we highly recommend consulting a regional mushroom identification guidebook if you are interested in learning more information about a particular species of fungi. Going on a hike with experienced foragers can also provide a wealth of pertinent knowledge. Seeking out a local mycological club may be helpful in connecting to these expeditions.
Now you might be thinking, “But I want to grow mushrooms at home! Why would I care how they’re growing in the wild?” But we encourage you to invest at least a little bit of time into researching the natural growth conditions for your mushroom of choice, as this will almost always help you to more successfully navigate a future home grow.
Setting Up An At-Home Grow
There are several suitable options for where to setup your home grow operation. Though most home growers do not choose to propagate mushrooms outdoors, that should not imply that outdoor grows are ill-advised. It can be quite simple to incorporate some species of mushroom into an existing garden, or even any outdoor spot with sporadic shade. Some species can tolerate more sun than others, so choosing an ideal spot very much depends upon your specific mushroom species of choice.
Indoors, some small grow kits can thrive on a table, serving as living decor in a kitchen, or placed on a shelf in the humid environment of a bathroom. Basements and closets are also good options due to their typical darkness and increased humidity, as well. Essentially, as long as your grow setup is not in direct sunlight, and especially if you are growing under tents or in containers, almost any location could be viable.
Tips & Tricks for Cultivating Mushrooms at Home
You may think that cultivating mushrooms at home means that you are limited to a small range of species, but this is far from the truth. Home cultivation can produce a wide variety of edible mushrooms, from those enjoyed as a culinary delicacy, to those with more medicinal, therapeutic or recreational value (check local laws before growing fungi with psychoactive compounds). While different species will require different investments with respect to space, time and resources, this also means nearly anyone should be able to find a variety of species that will work for their needs.
Indoor Tips & Tricks
If you are new to home cultivation, so-called “Spray and Go” kits may be an ideal option for you. These kits come ready to grow with minimal work or additional cost on your part. After you get your Spray and Go kit, simply cut open the box and mist it with water. These kits work especially well on a kitchen countertop where they can be misted and monitored regularly, as well as serving as quite the conversation piece!
After you’ve had success with a few Spray and Go kits – or if you’re just eager to dive right in! – you may decide you’d like to try a slightly more advanced grow method. For this, we recommend trying a “Martha Tent” (a mushroom fruiting chamber made from a hanging closet) or Monotub setup. These techniques employ a “fruiting chamber”, which will enable you to make temperature and humidity adjustments according to the species of mushroom that you are growing. Both of these methods are ideal for small- to medium-sized indoor grows.
Outdoor Tips & Tricks
And let’s not forget our favorite cultivation spot: The great outdoors! Whereas an indoor grow can offer you a greater degree of control over temperature and humidity specifications that may be desired for certain species or certain locales, do not overlook the abundance of ideal growing locations that may be located around your own home or garden. Areas with a moderate amount of reliable shade, such as wooded spaces, and spots under perennial plants or evergreen shrubs and trees, can all be choice locations to create a mushroom bed or to throw down an inoculated log. You can also grow mushrooms in the mulch of your fruit and vegetable garden beds, or even outdoors in a container if you choose. Regardless of where you choose to grow your mushrooms, just remember to ensure the growing media stays moist and to avoid extended periods of direct sunlight.
While many species of mushroom are ideal for a home grow, if you would like to choose a species that has a reputation for success throughout the mushroom cultivation community, we’d suggest starting with a variety of Oyster, Wine Cap, or Shiitake mushroom. Experiencing success with your first few mushroom grows can be very encouraging as you continue your journey as a home cultivator. And as you progress along this journey, we hope you are inspired to experiment with your own techniques, always learning and determining what works best for you. As always, if you have any tips or tricks that you would like to share with your community of fellow cultivators, please let us know!