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Backyard Shiitake Mushrooms: Tasty & Safe DIY Project

Have you ever eaten a wild mushroom and then wondered afterwards if you might have made a mistake? If you are prone to forage outdoors for tasty treats from nature, I’ll bet you have. The problem is, unless you are harvesting one of a few “foolproof” species of edible fungi, positive identification can be very challenging.

Oft-times wild mushroom harvesters take a notion to branch out and seek new varieties that are outside of the identification capabilities of the novice mycologist. This is where folks begin treading on dangerous ground and may be at risk for gastrointestinal distress; with symptoms that may range from a mild upset stomach to permanent damage or death.

Yes, death!

Everyone has heard about poisonous mushrooms but few people realize that some of the deadliest species are look-alike for some of the tastiest species. And you would not be able to distinguish the difference by nibbling a sample. Even a small sample of some of the “bad actors” can be lethal, leading to painful symptoms and organ failure. If this scares you out taking a risk then this article has served a good purpose.

If you wish to enjoy a safe, tasty experience with a highly-prized mushroom species, just take up the hobby of growing your very own shiitake mushrooms. Shiitake comes from the root Japanese “shii” (meaning oak) and “take” (for mushroom). Shiitake mushrooms are a billion dollar industry in Asia with 92% of the world production coming from Japan. Many culinary and medical uses have been identified. This species was only available as dried mushrooms in the US until 1972 but with the removal of a ban on importing live fungi a commercial industry has blossomed.

Hardwood logs are the key, with oak being a preferred tree species. There are six considerations if you are to be successful:

  1. You must acquire living Shiitake inoculum (the mycelial or rooting stage) already growing on a wood medium, usually hardwood dowels or sawdust (internet search will yield many providers).
  2. Proper cutting and handling of the logs to be inoculated is important. Cut trees close to the time of inoculation (2 weeks max.), 4-8 inch diameter and 3-4 feet long.
  3. Inoculate by drilling holes in the logs, inserting the living inoculum/spawn and seal the holes with melted wax to retain moisture. A single log may have 30-40 holes drilled in it.
  4. Place logs in a shady/moist environment (i.e. under the canopy in a woodlot with at least 75% shade).
  5. Maintain logs by wetting during dry spells. A sprinkler or mister run for a couple of hours a day works well.
  6. Proper harvesting and storage is most important and information is available in many places online.

Shiitake fruiting is usually triggered by changes in temperature and humidity so spring and fall are key times to check your logs. It does not take long for a mushroom to go from the early “pinning” stage to mature, so weekly checks are advised. Significant tropical weather events will also stimulate fruiting. Logs produce mushrooms for at least two years, until the nutrients in the wood are used up.

Don’t be in a hurry though, as the full colonization of the log by the mushroom mycelium will take up to 9 months before mushrooms begin to appear. Remember, beware the risks of harvesting wild fungi. A small-scale shiitake growing operation is a safe alternative for getting your “mushroom-fix.” Also, be ready to compete with a squirrel or two for your crop as they know a good thing when they see it too.

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