Mushrooms: doctors of the woods: Zev Friedman shares a fungus that can help keep you and your environment healthy.
My favorite mushroom is locally known as "hen of the woods" (Grifola frondosa). It hides out at the base of dead and dying oaks starting in late September. The Japanese name is maitake, literally "dancing mushroom," reportedly Because people end up dancing with joy when they find one. And for good reason. When you find one, it can easily be five or even 15 pounds of scrumptious goodness.
Maitake is a polypore, meaning it releases its spores from many tiny pores on its underside. It looks to me like a giant flower, fleshy petals emanating out from a central node at the intersection of tree and soil.
The name "hen of the woods" is appropriate. Mushrooms are more like animals than they are like plants. Partly because of their physiological similarities to animals, some of the medicinal compounds that fungi have evolved to maintain their health also seem to work in the human Body. Along with studies showing the effectiveness of maitake extracts in combating hepatitis, diabetes, and a variety of malignant tumors, it has also been shown to help with blood pressure, hypertension and general immune system stabilization.
For these and other reasons detailed in my first mushroom article in the May 2009 issue of NLJ, Paul Stamets, the major pioneer in the English language of the use of mushrooms to heal damaged ecosystems, Began comparing the effects that fungi have in forests to the effects they have in human bodies.
To be fair, there is some debate surrounding where on the spectrum of parasite to simple decomposer the maitake lies. Some people assert that maitake attacks and kills oaks and can be detrimental to oak-dominant forests, especially in combination with Sudden Oak Death Syndrome. My personal observation and opinion is that it is an opportunist whose mycelium successfully spreads only in oaks that are already on their way out, as healthy trees have immune responses that defend them from maitake and other more powerful parasites.
This weak parasitism actually helps the overall ecosystem by removing trees with poorly adapted genetics or those that are growing in inferior locations, efficiently cycling those nutrients back into the soil, insects and animals. The maitake mycelium inhabits the extensive root system of the dying tree, digests the tree's tissue and prepares the way for the next round of plants. Insects are drawn to the sweet mycelium in the wood. Birds come to eat the insects living in old mushroom fruit Bodies. And, the birds' feces have dozens of plant species' seeds in them, inoculating the temporary vacuum created by the dying tree with plants for the next phase of succession.
Stamets claims that in this way some fungal species actually act as the agents of the immune systems of forests. He has developed a set of techniques using a variety of fungus to imitate and enhance these natural processes, thereby helping to restore damaged ecosystems more quickly than would occur without human intervention. He has coined the term "myco-forestry," which describes this approach.
Next to the Appalachian Reishi (Ganoderma tsugae), which I wrote about in May, maitake is one of our prime native candidates for this human ecosystem doctoring. If an oak (any species, although white oak seems to be best) is blown over in a storm (leaving the stump in the ground), is cut down for one reason or another, or appears to be dying, it can be used for maitake cultivation.
To cultivate, a chainsaw is used to smooth jagged rips in the wood. Then, holes are drilled in a diamond pattern at around four-inch spacing, myceliated sawdust is packed into the holes with a special tool, and the holes are covered with wax to protect the mycelium from drying and from insects. If you've lost a tree and want to cultivate, plan to quickly replant fruit trees and shrubs around your stump to make use of the composting oak roots and to shade the stump, allowing the fungus greater success. A stump inoculated in this way might take two to five years to begin "fruiting," but after that can produce maitake for your gustatory delight for years to come!
For more information about myco-forestry and mushroom Cultivation, check the May 2009 Digging In article in the Archives at www.newlifejournal.com.
Zev Friedman is the owner of Urban Paradise Gardening, a regionally based permaculture design and installation business specializing in myco-forestry and edible gardens. For more information, check out www.upgardens.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.