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Spring means Morels.

Spring means Morels.

As a mushroom cultivator you get a lot of assumptions.  The first two you’ve just thought about it – funny mushrooms and pizza mushrooms.  No one ever says I grow tomatoes and someone think – oh do you now? With a hint hint nudge nudge kind of look on their face.

A few people will actually ask the question “can you grow morels” someone near by will respond “I thought you couldn’t grow morels?”.

My question back is – have you ever tried?

All along the ridges of the morel cap are the ‘sacs’ loaded with spores ready to be dispersed.

To cultivate mushrooms alone you need a pretty involved setup.  Hence why you don’t hear about this profession very often it does take a lot of dedication, mess ups, and assets.  I’ve been doing this now for over a year and a half and am still continually perfecting this all – and still not making any money from it.  Donations are welcome!

In my last blog I went over techniques we as cultivators use depending on the species on mushrooms and even if you want to talk basics we’re going to get into some serious home science courses and quite of a bit of intuitiveness.

I’ve never blogged about my morel experiments for a few reasons.   It’s a multi-billion industry for a few reasons so discretion and strict trade secret methods don’t come out.  But we can talk about some of the basics and some of my findings.

The real question would be have morels ever been grown indoors?  And yes, they have.  MSU was accredited with this feet of biological discovery but to this day the methods they used are not in place today for many reasons all of which I won’t state because those reasons I have not personally tested and no one backed educational outfit supports those theories.  But yes – morels have been cultivated indoors.  Oh by the way they patented their process so although you can read over their techniques – don’t copy.  Google Patent – Morel Mushrooms.

Even if morels were to be cultivated indoors it would still take people, like me, around the world starting up small farms to grow mushrooms of all sorts to bring you fresh mushrooms and better yet – fresh morels.  Mushrooms shelf life is quick – like 3-4 days quick.  There’s a technique I employ that allow my mushrooms to stay fresh for 2 weeks.  Maybe if I get a backer I can explore this technique(hint hint).

I have a consistent spot I they pot up and was lucky enough to find my smallest ever.

Back to morels so yes it’s been done but is not currently being done to my knowledge.  You can’t walk into any market in my hometown and find fresh morels and in fact Michigan my home state just made it illegal to even forage for morels to sell without a proper foragers license.

Morels in general.  Morels are part of a bigger family under the fungi family called Ascomycota.  Otherwise known as ‘sac fungi’ because their spores are contained in a sac-like structure.  Unlike shiitake spores which are designed to be released into the wind ‘sac fungi’ like morels eject their spores onto things using ‘turgor’ pressure which is a pressure built up inside the cellular walls.  Without getting really involved we’ll stop there.

Cross cut section of a morel mushroom. You can see just along the edging of the ridges the tiny black spores loaded.

Everyone has a story, a myth, and a way of finding morels.  It’s quite funny.  The morel is the tomato of mushrooms because everyone has a good way of growing a tomato and everyone has a good way of finding a morel.  Mostly people rely on their ‘spots’ which isn’t nearly as competitive as truffles but it’s right up there | Fun Fact?  Morels and Truffles are both in the Ascomycota family.  And they are both delicious so you probably knew that!

This is open knowledge so it’s safe to share but most people do not realize that since morels are in this category we are unfamiliar and a mushroom is a mushroom is a mushroom right? Wrong.  Very wrong.  Another trait of this family is they can produce spores, offspring, on their mycelium.  Why is this important?  Because the fruiting body, the morel, does not have to happen for morels to continue on their genome.  Hence why some years you get good or bad harvests because it does not have to happen. They are not bound by their fruiting body like other mushrooms such as Oysters, Shiitakes, Portobellas you name it – morels are structurally and sexually very different.  Remember in high school when you found out frogs could change sex?  The term asexual sounded weird, but it’s true morels can produce sexually(mushroom body) or asexual(spore on mycelium).

So I’ve been testing hundreds of theories and substrates against scientific findings, myths, known phenomena, and so forth and last June we struck the tiniest bit of gold.  To my knowledge the first ever – indoor sterilized, non-trasfered, morel mushroom.  It was tiny and I shoot myself for not having the proper camera to take it’s photo.  Still donations welcome to continue this expensive research.

This picture does not do it justice and do to the photo pixels on the web but if you can see the pale stalk/cap in the direct center and that is likely the worlds tiniest morel mushroom ever documented from a sterilized medium without transferring.   I say without transferring because part of MSU’s process involved a transfer and mine does not.  It is a sterilized medium, inoculated(seeded) with liquid culture, and allowed to grow and stay in the same jar unopened/sterile.  

Morel fruiting in a sterilized media – Copyright Midnight Harvest

 

I’ve been testing and testing and testing and I’ve learned so much about it’s mycelium structure and actually how to manipulate it to being a non-spore producing structure most recently. Tom Volk is a great mycologist and from his diagrams from the University of Wisconsin we see the actual life cycle as proposed by him.  Did you see the 3 areas of which morels don’t have to turn into a mushroom?  Me too.

Sclerotia, funny term, are a solid mass of mycelium according to the experts are made primary of calcium and if you take them out of a medium they are really hard and do have a crunch.  I’ve crushed them before.  If you go and see Tom Volk’s picture again you’ll notice there is no path to the morel without first going through the sclerotia.  Which is interesting to me because I would think this could be false – But I can’t prove that I have witnessed and cultured sclerotia – they are quite common to cultures.

The biggest hurdle is to how to essentially get mycelium out of those sclerotia and into fruiting a morel.  Well – we did that too.

Sclerotia are not hard to come by but there are some things that can induce their presence.  Sclerotia can grow in size and as well combine growths as I’ve personally seen in my own trials.  If you’ve still got Tom Volk’s diagram of the mushroom life cycle then up then you might be wondering why what after the sclerotia?  As I understand MSU success was based on sclerotia but they would culture them, remove them from the medium, and then transfer them to a new media.  Hence it being a ‘process patent’ because it was a process.  I’ve designed my own process that which does not require any removal and sparks mycelium to grow from the sclerotia.  Those brown nugget like objects are the sclerotia.

Now the biggest thing is what type of mycelium may come out?  Our trials generated 2 types of mycelium and we know this because we actually saw a difference.

Meet type 1 and type 2.

Asexual mycelium directly coming from sclerotia formations. Copyright Midnight Harvest
Sexual mycelium(non-spore producing) directly coming from sclerotia formations. Copyright Midnight Harvest

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(Side Note:  Not all morels produce sclerotia – I’ve worked with 4 different species, some produce a lot, some produce a little, and some don’t produce at all.  To some mycologists(a person who studies fungi) there are many species of morels but truly according to one of my books there are truly only 8 and even that can be broken down into sclerotia producing or not which is a big factor.)

We currently have 12 trials on going at this moment.  1 is keeping me on my toes because it is actually super white, slow moving, and does not look like anything I’ve seen.  But the morel I am testing is my own – I cloned it from the wild myself.  I’ve never tested it before in all my trials but it could be the same species that worked before back in June.  We have trials going indoors and trials outdoors both controlled and semi-controlled.

At the end of the day we have to ask are morel mushrooms environmentally triggered or nutritional or both?

I am continually doing the research and always running new trials at the start of next month.  For now – question everything my friends.

  • Matt Hall | Amateur Mycologist

 

 

Holy Shiitakes

Holy Shiitakes

Mushrooms seem to be just ‘there’ in a way for the most part.  They’re on pizza, in lots of wraps and sandwiches, can be made into burgers, and of course most people think most mushrooms are deadly.

Mushrooms are in the ‘fungi’ family which is a family unto itself and no relation to plants but many can be symbiotic with plants sharing and receiving nutrients.

In my experience the average person knows very little about the life cycle of the mushroom.  Usually common myths are that we use spores, or that we all are growing funny mushrooms, and when people picture a mushroom it’s your typical white button or portobello.  Fun fact for you – those are same species just different strain of mushroom like a tomato but it’s a Roma and not Cherry.

Actual facts – mushrooms breathe in Oxygen like us and breathe out CO2 like us.  Shiitakes, which I grow, actually do need light to initiate mushrooms to form.  We call this pinning.

Mushroom Pin
Cap formation
Stalk elongation
Veil breaks revealing gills

We don’t use spores for reproduction.  We use mycelium(mi-see-lee-um) which is the vegetative root system of mushrooms.  Mycelium is the genetic copy whereas spores are the offspring and just like you and I we are not genetic copies of our parents.  We get that mycelium from the cap/stalk once a mushroom forms.

Mycelium growing on Agar.

We do however grow mushrooms in relatively high humidity anywhere from 85-95% Rh(relative humidity).  That one you probably knew.

Depending on the grower and their choice strain of mushrooms they wish to grow the techniques and practices are different for how to get to harvesting mushrooms.   Certain strains of mushrooms like Oyster are vigorous fast growing and relatively tolerant whereas other strains like Shiitakes are slow moving, has multiples growing stages, and requires sterile and careful handling.

White Oyster Mushroom
Blue Dove Oyster Mushroom

Oyster mushrooms are typically grown on pasteurized straw.  Aptly named for their ‘oyster’ like appearance and come in a wide variety of colors.  Pasteurization is can be done in few ways with  mushrooms and it’s’ function is to clean the medium of other competitive fungi like molds for a short period of time.  

Shiitakes are what I study – Lentinula Edodes is the official name of the mushroom.  There are fewer methods to cultivate shiitakes than there are Oysters but due to small farms and difference situations of availability the medium being used for cultivation is always expanding.  For the most part they are grown in hardwood logs outdoors in a shade tent but indoor cultivation(my practice) is starting to be favored due to efficiency and timing while still maintaining quality.  Outdoor growing mushrooms while produces better more natural shiitakes is inefficienct, extremely long, and you have to have your own wood/land to use and start.  I am hoping I can do a small outdoor operation for wild strains and I’ve built some friendships with loggers who I hope to get some good logs from to start that because I have no land/trees to cut of my own.

Shiitakes ‘fruiting’

Indoors I grow mine on hardwood chips(oak is favored)and a variety of other food sources to increase quality, flavor, and efficiency.  The name of the game is quality and efficiency and to delicately achieve both.  You want 100% efficiency and if you aren’t operating at that level you are wasting your time and a lot of money.  Efficiency is determined by harvested wet weight over dry starting weight.  So if I have a 5lb(dry weight no water added) block and then I harvest 4 lbs I am at 80% efficiency which isn’t bad but it could use some work.

Adding differing levels of carbon, nitrogen, and sugar bases you can increase efficiency and I’ve read all the studies on those bases and done some experimenting myself.  All of my added ‘ingredients’ if you will are certified organic – I want to ensure no residue of any kind from pesticides and fungicides exist in my mix.

The biggest hill to overcome with shiitakes is they need sterilization.  Unlike pasteurization, sterilization, is the removal of all competitive fungi/bacteria to ensure proper growth for allowed growing time.  Sterilization requires autoclaves, pressure cookers, and most of all a flow hood.

Flow box without fan.

You’ve seen a flow hood you just probably forgot and or it looked different.  Every high school chemistry class had one but you reached into it and it usually had a top vent for exhaust rather than an open environment like the one below.  This piece of equipment is crucial for shiitakes because once you sterilize you have to keep it sterile and these deliver sterile(.3 micron) pressurized air to ensure what is called ‘laminar’ or flat air flow.  It’s not a giant wind tunnel like you’d think it is designed to deliver controlled air and not be a wind tunnel.  The only factor missing here is the fan now on the top with runs at over 570 cfm.  We custom built mine due to cost involved and it works great!   You can hack build these or buy them it all depends on the effort and or money you want to put into your process.

 

Mushrooms that require sterilization are a lot harder due to the increased asset/equipment requirements and also basic mushroom handling knowledge.  I’ve messed up countless times and have learned a lot of contamination but from my mistakes comes lessons and now I am running a small time operation with very little if at all contamination which is nice.  So you kind of just have to invest, learn, do, learn again, and see how it works for you.

Biggest lesson – don’t try to rewrite the book about mushrooms – so much information is available to you between backed research educational extensions offices like Pennsylvania Extension on bag/log cultivation, and there are countless books available which you can buy online or likely buy at your local big book store.  I’ve got the online publications and I’ve got the books and then some.  But it does come down to doing it and re-doing it if you mess it up.  This book is great for beginners and it puts things in simpler much more updated terms.

The beautiful thing about mushroom cultivation is that it can be achieved year round with relatively low operating costs once everything is in place.  Mushrooms have about a 5 day shelf life if just commonly stored in the fridge so local growers are needed everywhere because shipping overnight would spike the price too high and so those mushrooms you get at the store are likely dried to seem fresh.  But for reference this is a fresh shiitake.

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