It's good to grow mushrooms: Zev Friedman dishes the dirt on myco-forestry and explains why it's a great idea.Myco-forestry is the cultivation of fungi as part of forest agriculture. People mean different things when they use the term "forest agriculture." My intended meaning is closest to that of Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, the founders of permaculture. In the early sixties, they asked a big question: in places where durable human cultures have existed for many centuries with relative stability and without undermining the ecosystems that supported them, how did they do it? They found some commonalities, the most prominent of which was a reliance on perennial trees and shrubs for food instead of annual crops. These forest crops only have to be planted once (if at all), and they don't require tilling. Forests build their own topsoil, fix carbon, absorb stormwater runoff, maintain high levels of biodiversity, provide resilience during famine, provide a diversity of crops in a small area, and feel wonderful to spend time in. Convinced yet to bring the forest to your backyard?
It's not quite that easy, though. Successful forest agriculture requires a deep understanding of natural ecosystems so that we can imitate their most productive facets. Biologists now classify life into around six kingdoms, and in healthy ecosystems all six are represented. Each kingdom has a different role in the food chain, and all these roles mesh intricately to make the whole thing work.
Mushrooms are in the Kingdom of Fungi. Over millennia, they've evolved a unique repertoire of enzymes that allow them to chew up dead animals, trees and even bedrock, converting these substances into forms that can be used by the rest of the ecosystem.
There are two main types of complex fungi: saprobes and mycorrhizae. If we didn't have saprobic fungi, Earth would be buried in hundreds of feet of accumulated plants that can only be broken down by these fungi. Mycorrhizal fungi, on the other hand, use their enzymes to digest particles of rock and organic matter in the soil, trading the resulting minerals with their plant partners for photosynthetic sugars. Plants with mycorrhizal partners grow faster, have fewer disease problems, and are more resilient in the face of rapid change than plants that go it alone. In fact, healthy forests simply cannot exist without mycorrhizal fungi.
Myco-forestry deliberately uses these amazing fungi in forest management. The practice is especially desirable in the wake of some kind of disturbance (logging, development or a windstorm); it builds topsoil instead of eroding it, provides drought resilience and better water quality through storm-water retention, stimulates biological diversity, sequesters atmospheric carbon through hastened plant growth, and speeds up all phases of the forest life cycle while increasing yields of food, medicine, fiber and other substances for human use.
A particularly timely example of myco-forestry is cultivation of the Appalachian Reishi (Ganoderma tsugae), which grows on dead hemlock trees. One. of the great tragedies of our generation is the death of the Eastern Hemlock, and many private and public land tracts are now covered in dead and dying hemlocks. Chinese Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum), the Appalachian Reishi's close sibling, is known as the "mushroom of immortality." The species' biochemistry and pharmacology have been studied extensively due to its long traditional use. Clinical trials have verified many effects of reishis, including potent anti-tumor (sarcoma and hepatoma) action, adaptogenic and immune stimulating qualities, and spleen cell regeneration. Reishis also seem to possess anti-hypertensive and anti-allergenic properties.
Dying hemlocks can be cut down, inoculated with reishi mycelium in May or June, and staked along the topographic contours of hills as retaining edges for paths or native medicinal plant beds, simultaneously decreasing erosion and runoff while building topsoil. The fungus decomposes the log more quickly into mulch and soil than would occur without human intervention, while producing highly valuable medicinal and edible mushrooms for many years. Meanwhile, other trees with mycorrhizally inoculated roots can be planted into the spaces in the canopy left by the removal of hemlocks, and those trees will more rapidly establish in the remaining composted organic matter.
Ideally, reishi cultivation should be undertaken as part of an integrated forest garden. It can be done on different scales--from a shady section of a small backyard to a large property with stands of dying hemlocks. If this sounds like a plan you'd like to make for your space, you can begin to understand the inoculation process by referencing Growing Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms and Mycelium Running, both by Paul Stamets, or by contacting a local myco-forestry professional. Also be on the lookout for a follow-up article on this topic in a fall issue of NLJ.
Katuah Myco-Culture has started a local myco-lab and will be offering reishi mycelium for inoculating dying hemlocks in late May. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Zev Friedman is the owner of Urban Paradise Gardening, a regionally based permaculture consultation and design business specializing in myco-forestry and edible gardens. For more information, check out www.upgardens.com or email email@example.com.