A life-long gardener, Braxton Reed starting mucking around a decade ago with a more mysterious method of growing his own food.
Edible mushrooms have popped up unannounced in Reed's garden beds, leaf piles and landscaping. Harnessing the fungi's potential, however, is best left to the experts, specifically businesses that sell mushroom-growing kits.
Reed purchased his first kit — a plastic bag of straw harboring mushroom spores — about 10 years ago from a Washington-based mail-order company. As the Internet's popularity has grown, Web sites peddling mushroom kits have multiplied, too. For as little as $18, the budding mycologist or adventurous cook can purchase fungus "gardens" from sites like fungi.com, mushbox.com, sporeworks.com and gmushrooms.com.
"It's a lot of fun," Reed says. "It's a whole other life form — not like regular gardening."
Instead of letting Mother Nature dictate growing conditions, mushroom gardeners must maintain an environment ideal for fungi: fairly moist air hovering between 60 and 65 degrees. Bathrooms and kitchens can be prime mushroom real estate, particularly on durable surfaces like counters and in showers that hold up under the frequent misting mushrooms need.
"Humidity is the key to it," Reed says.
But contaminants — like the mold spores found in most homes — bloom under the same circumstances, making mushroom kits fertile ground for unwelcome and unwholesome guests. Small patches of mold can be excised from the main mass of fodder or treated with a weak bleach solution without harming the mushrooms, Reed says.
"Usually, the mushrooms are actually more aggressive," Reed says. "If it gets too nasty, you have to throw it on the compost pile," he says, adding that he's later found gourmet mushrooms sprouting from his household's stew of kitchen scraps.
"I've gotten 'em to grow on cardboard and waste paper ... coffee grounds ... leaves."
Hoping to naturalize mushrooms in his home garden outside of Ashland, Reed turned to John Teem, owner of Continuum Mushroom Farm in Talent. Teem, a commercial grower of gourmet and medicinal mushrooms, also caters to homegrowers like Reed. Continuum sells a range of mushroom spawn in plastic bags that display white, web-like networks of the mycelium that "fruit" as reishi, oyster, lion's mane or the most popular mushroom, shiitake.
For avid fungus farmers like Reed, Teem prepares logs that he drills full of holes and fills with spore-innoculated sawdust. Unlike indoor mushroom kits that will yield tasty morsels in just a few days, mushroom-seeded logs kept outside likely won't fruit for a couple of years. But when they do sprout, they'll continue to fruit for many years.
While some companies sell spores and growing medium, called "substrate," separately, mushrooms must be seeded under sterile conditions, requiring a clean room and specialized equipment. Ready-made kits are not only more reliable but also more cost-effective for the mushroom hobbyist.
Most kits will produce several crops, or "flushes," of mushrooms, depending on the species, growing conditions and care taken. An initial mushroom flush rewarded amateur grower Shahoma McAlister of Cave Junction, but she found it difficult to stimulate further fruiting.
"My growing room was too hot and dry," McAlister says. "I'll be doing it more and more till I discover the right amount of moisture," she says, noting that she's making mulch from cottonwoods.
"Oyster mushrooms love cottonwood," she says, adding that she grows gourmet mushrooms for use in stir-frys or to garnish soup after they're sautéed.
"They're a high-energy super-food with good proteins."
"More people are becoming aware of how many edible and medicinal mushrooms there are."
Cultivating a wide variety of gourmet mushrooms purchased by some 15 local restaurants, Teem also produces reishi mushrooms for medicinal use. Reishis, he says, are a tonic for the heart, lungs and nerves that also are "used for cancer and proven effective."
It's a sentiment shared by Eric Cerecedes, owner of Jacksonville's Mushroom Way, which sells dehydrated and pulverized fungi in capsule form at local health-food stores and Ashland Food Co-op. Mushrooms, Cerecedes says, are antiviral, antibacterial, anti-tumor; they lower cholesterol, moderate blood pressure and blood sugar and enhance liver and kidney function; some of them improve sex function in men.
Mushroom marketers like Cerecedes are forbidden by the Food and Drug Administration from claiming their product can cure, treat or prevent any disease. However, they can say such substances support, optimize or enhance immune functioning, energy, mental or athletic abilities and are being studied, with positive results, for their effects on cancer and HIV.
"They're finding more and more medicinal compounds in mushrooms," Teem says. "I believe there are thousands more to be found. You only have to look at how resistant they are to decomposition in the forest."
Mushrooms comprise a group of polysaccharides, or complex sugars, that "sit like a lock and key" on immune receptors in the human body, Cerecedes says. Fungi also stimulate the body's production of macrophages, white blood cells that attack bacteria, pathogens and tumor cells, he adds.
Produced in California, Cerecedes' mushrooms are grown without chemicals under controlled conditions that mimic nature to bring out the widest variety of bioactive ingredients, he says. The remedies are sold in several formulas said to increase memory and cognitive functioning; remove chemicals and heavy metals from the liver and fortify blood; increase production of biochemicals that promote the exchange of cellular energy; and enhance the immune system with "nine of the most powerful mushrooms on the planet."
Finding a receptive audience at a recent class on the Ashland campus of Southern Oregon University, Cerecedes says he plans to expand his business to selling mushroom-growing kits similar to Teem's. For $20 to $30 — the same price as a bottle of mushroom-based supplements — customers can harvest several pounds of fresh mushrooms. The interest in mushrooms, he says, only stands to grow.
"Enough people are spreading the word that it's becoming a national phenomenon."