Mushroom Harvest and Cultivation
Another facet of Non Timber Forest Products that is rapidly growing as the local foods scene emerges even stronger is mushroom cultivation. This goes beyond the harvest of the wild ones that naturally proliferate as unique culinary mushroom demand is growing quickly. This demand equals meeting the supply through a more intensive cultivation as to also protect our wild ones from over harvesting. Thus depending on your location and context, various species and their differing strains can be grown and allows one to turn problems into solutions. It’s a relatively easy pattern of implementation and takes skills of management but can provide a worthwhile return on a home or commercial-scale.
With that, as to recycle unwanted or overcrowded trees, a land manager can fell these trees and inoculate them with mushroom strains as to yield a harvest from this carbon resource. In my families land back in Kentucky, USA, the species I wish to thin is Red Maple (Acer rubrum). It grows so thick, like an “invasive”, that very little light reaches the forest floor making the herbaceous layer virtually obsolete. In healthy old growth forest one would aim for 50 trees per acre (4000 sq m). In our modern forest, which are recovering from years of over harvesting, grazing and farming, more like 200 trees per acre are found on sites. Thus this overabundance of carbon can be cycled on site to eventually build soil yet first obtain a food or medicine yield. Also very importantly it can be part of how we manage our woodlands and even accelerate succession towards an old growth feel of a forest. In fact this is what i am actually most into it for at my families land and the mushroom harvest comes secondary. Most commonly shiitake mushrooms (Lentinula edodes) are being grown in these such cases of cycling hardwoods but there are others as well.
The Basic Process
The first steps are inherently focused around design and project management. You can use the following as a rough checklist with the total explanation below combined with the introduction above:
- evaluate forest health through prolonged and thoughtful observation (PATO)
- examine access and think about the flow of materials
- decide which mushroom and its’ strain through locating an outlet for distribution of the “seed” and examining their catalogues
- mark trees in the field and wait for appropriate time of year for cutting
- create saw horse work stations and acquire all materials and equipment necessary
- plan budget and labour needed
- order spawn material for mushroom “seed” and refrigerate upon arrival
- cut trees in the field into their appropriate lengths and stack wastes appropriately
- move logs to a position for drilling, often at an outdoor electricity point or where a generator is brought into the field
- drill logs with a high-powered drill to create the holes for “seeding”
- put the “seed” into the holes appropriately depending on the type you go with
- heat cheese wax and apply to each hole after seed is in to seal the holes
- move logs to stacking yard and stack appropriately in dense shade and also where they won’t dry out quickly
- Monitor for humidity and irrigate if need be
- wait one year for the first sizable flush as you may get some after six months on softer hardwoods like maple
- for timely flushes soak logs in a trough for 24 hours or bang with mallet
- possibly re-stack so picking is easier than the conventional space-saving stack of the first year
- Harvest and process for eating, drying, or sales
The logs are harvested fresh from tree felling in the forest and cut in four-foot sections (1.2 m) with a diameter of four to eight inches (10-20 cm). In the Eastern Deciduous forest of the states context, this is done in late winter or very early spring on a full moon. In past years I would say this is in February but even in our more southern location it’s more like March as winter seems to drag on. Basically it is when the sap is rising after winter when the forest reawakens and one can ask maple syrup farmers when they are tapping because you would want to cut at the same exact time. They are then drilled to create the “planting space” for the “seed” within two weeks of their harvest to ensure that other decomposers don’t occupy them first. The seed comes in two forms and are usually grown in laboratories by small companies as it is a quite technical and cleanliness oriented process. There, or at home, the spores are collected and then grown in petri dishes to initiate the germination phase. From there they are transferred to a different and more carbon dense substrate where they can grow more. This is usually grains like wheat just as some ant species do in the Mediterranean
(Everything Gardens). Once the grains are colonized by the mycelium of the fungus, they are transferred either to sawdust or a box where small wooden dowels with threads are awaiting the fungal mycelium inoculant. The inoculant, the grains that have been colonized by say the shiitake mushroom strain of your choice, then colonize this new substrate and are ready to be shipped for usage. The holes are drilled for the logs you have cut only when you have the inoculated sawdust or dowels in hand from purchasing or growing on your own or is in transit via mail. This means the timing around the felling and purchasing must coincide for a good success. You then need the right equipment to apply either the sawdust or the dowels and insert it into the holes that were made by the high-powered drill. Once the material is in the hole you coat this in cheese wax as to seal the hole against other microbes and retain humidity. The logs are then stacked in the forest in a deep canopy area often on the non sun side of a location (north facing in the northern hemisphere). From there you wait and monitor the logs for humidity. At the family land back in Kentucky if it rains like it should all summer, then there is no need for irrigation. However, in the mediterranean for sure irrigation is needed to keep the proper humidity in the logs so that the inoculant stays alive and covers the whole log as to consume the lignin of the wood. This is why in that context they are often grown in greenhouses as to create a more humid state. After consuming enough carbon and
when the conditions are right, the mushrooms will pop out as they are the fruiting body of the fungal strands that have colonized the wood. When producing commercially or even when your backyard production needs a big flush because of an upcoming BBQ, you can soak the logs in a trough for 24 hours and this will induce a big flush at once. Also some people like to bang the logs with a mallet to shock them a bit into fruiting. Some people also stack the logs in different ways depending on if it is picking time or waiting for the initial year to pass before they are in the production stage. Lastly, you have to harvest them and keep a steady eye on them so that you get as many as possible. Slugs can be a problem so some people have even inserted ducks into their mushroom yards at appropriate times to help with the slugs. Once harvested they sell for a good price fresh at farmers markets and can be dried and sold later for a fairly reasonable price as well.
As a steward of a forest it is important to see this as an opportunity to improve the health and overall architecture of the forest. You should select the species for felling wisely and while some literature will focus primarily on oaks, there are other options. While oaks have their advantages in shiitake production, they do not rapidly repopulate in certain forests so their harvest should be done carefully. Remember that harder hardwoods like oak take longer to produce but produce for more years when compared to softer hardwoods like maple. This is one of the main reasons why they are grown on oak but it is vital to always remember forest health otherwise over extraction limits biodiversity. In Portugal some are growing shiitake on Eucalyptus which was strange for me to see but nonetheless it works. And with its great coppice quality it makes it an interesting selection.
Besides shiitake, forest farmers can also try mushroom cultivation with cut wood to grow oyster mushrooms and also lions mane in the temperate areas. These even flourish on some of the softer hardwoods which I plan to do at the family land with Box Elder (Acer negundo). This ancient maple, with a compound leaf, really grows well in our bottomland site and is quite abundant. I don’t want to eliminate every one of these trees, however, as they are great for bees and wildlife. We, myself and local mycologist Romain Picasso, plan to also use the Red Maple and see which works best in our site. These are often grown in a fashion called totem. This method stacks larger diameter cut logs on top of themselves and inoculation similar to the shiitake process that creates a unique way to cultivate mushrooms here and there or in a dense fashion like shiitake. Some people even inoculate stumps and stack with the totem style or do it strictly on the stump. Reishi mushrooms (Ganoderma lucidum) are even being grown on stumps in the temperate world even though in the wild its most often found in more subtropical locations.
Also within the forest a forest farmer can grow beds of stropharia mushrooms (Stropharia rugosoannulata) in the soil below a forest canopy or forest edge. Wood chips are used as their carbon resource but are laid on the ground rather than a full log like shiitake. There are several ways to do the whole process but the main idea is that it is more of a garden beds style on the forest edge. Your forest can supply the wood chips needed to install the bed and keep it rolling along.
In this climate context as well there are wild mushrooms to be found. One is the Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor) which is used for medicinal purposes. This common polypore of the eastern deciduous forest is found on dead wood and stumps looks a bit like its name suggests. Most often it is harvested and processed through a tincture or tea. Also wild we find oyster mushrooms growing and big bags of them can be harvested in the spring and the fall. A Spring wonder that is one of the true delicacies of the mushroom world is the Morrel (Morchella spp). This brain looking fruiting body is a highly prized and valued mushroom. Only a lucky few have been able to cultivate them making spring walks in the woods a fun adventure. Their taste is quite meaty and once you find the first its like your brain imprints it and then all the sudden bags and bags worth appear all around you! In Europe, Portugal and Austria, I have harvested the amazingly beautiful and tasty parasol mushroom (Macrolepiota procera). This beautiful white and cream colored mushroom pops up tall and strong and flairs out an umbrella like body which is often picked in quite a few bundles making meals with these mushrooms quite easy.
Floral Arrangement Resources, Crafts, and Fibers
Many forest products can be gleaned or wildcrafted beyond the commonly thought of mushrooms, fruits and nuts, and medicinal plants including materials to get crafty and artsy with. A great resource for floral arrangements that I saw growing extensively in the Pacific Northwest of the states was salal (Gaultheria shallon). This evergreen, high ground-cover type plant produces a wonderful waxy leaf with a slightly serrated edge. Yes its fruits are high in anti-oxidants but people go beyond that for another resource procured from it for the floral trade. These plants can be grown in forest canopy conditions and provide yet another yield in the system.
Another craft-like floral arrangement material, is wreaths for the holiday season. A former mentor of mine, Huckleberry Leonard, would go into the forests of the Pacific Northwest and collect this craft material in the fall leading up to the winter solstice. From there he would weave the materials in loops and sprays outwardly to create fun and dynamic wreaths for the winter. Furthermore, an outlet for this sort of crafts in the eastern half of the states that I have come across is the Kentucky Artisan Center in Berea, Kentucky. There people also wild craft materials of all sorts including wild grapevines (Vitis spp.) to do similar art. Also lots of wood workers there search out for pieces from trees that would never be sold for timber because of some sort of irregularity. From there they work it down into beautiful bowls, furniture and all sorts of cutlery for example. Another classic that comes from the forest is the trusty walking stick and with the Appalachian Trail, one of North America’s greatest and longest treks right around the corner, people create beautiful and functional pieces to help with mountain mobility.
Other fibers one might find in the forest could include the kapok tree (Ceiba pentandra), which is collected for an insulation material that comes from the seedpod. Its grows in the sub-tropics and mediterranean regions and is a common street tree in Lisbon, Portugal. In its native habitat of Mexico and a bit further south as well as its cultivation location of Southeast Asia, it is collected for this seed fibre. I at one time had purchased a pillow stuffed with this forest fiber from an eco home-store. Another fiber resource for craft making can be procured from Willow (Salix spp.) in the wetter parts of the forest or along waterways. This isn’t the only species that can be collected along with other trees and vines for basket making. Before the advent of plastic, a well made basket was very much a treasured item and as people remember these older luxuries our forests and their ability to produce Non Timber Forest Products it is coming back into consciousness.
Another fiber obtained from forest harvests that I have seen extensively due to my prolonged stay in Portugal is the cork harvest. This amazingly drought hardy and resilient tree thrives in a Savannah like ecosystem which can turn to forest conditions with the addition of Strawberry Tree, amongst others, which is often a complimentary yield in the south of Portugal. However it’s usually a silvopasture system but nonetheless deserves recognition in this page especially as the corks’ final product is evolving. It is traditionally used for stoppers in the wine industry and some application in roof insulation. The insulation part has expanded as well as turning it into a fine textile-like creation and now can be seen in lots of things from purses to umbrellas and post cards and coasters. The bark is stripped every 7-9 years and its quality is rated on growth often due to humidity in the soil. Often it is grown on north facing hills but common practices have dehydrated the landscape like tilling and synthetic fertilizers. It creates a huge potential for working with farmers on improving their organic matter %, water harvesting, overall biodiversity, and rotational grazing to improve the system and quality of cork as its demands heighten. It also calls for helping set up new plantations with integrated systems and doing so on the key line pattern.