Sunday, October 15, 2017

Intro to mushrooms


In 1991 German tourists hiking in the Otztal Alps on the Austrian-Italian border came upon a corpse sticking out of a glacier. The well-preserved natural mummy, later nicknamed “Otzi,” died between 3239 and 3105 BC. Among his belongings were two species of mushrooms with leather strings through them: birch fungus known for medicinal qualities, and a variety known as a “tinder conk” in what is believed to be a firelighting kit.

Otzi’s connection to mushrooms was just one of the engaging facts that emerged from Fungi for Resiliency; Intro to Mushrooms & Fungi earlier this month in Newburgh. Hosted by Smugtown Mushrooms at the Moon infospace on Liberty Street, the weekday workshop was packed with attendees with all different levels of experience in mushrooms.


Facilitator Olga from Rochester-based Smugtown Mushrooms taught the group about mushroom biology and lifecycles, ecological roles, growing and cooking, common misconceptions, as well as medical and industry uses. Chaga tea, made from a dense black mushroom that resembles burnt charcoal, was passed around.

What is a mushroom? In the past 100 years we’ve learned, contrary to popular belief, that they’re more similar to animals than to plants. They can’t make their own food, they need sunlight, and mushrooms must breathe oxygen. In school they’re tossed in lesson plans with the plant kingdom  because we’re simply more resonant with their resemblance to plant life. A common misconception about mushrooms is that you cannot get sick from simply touching a poisonous variety—it must be ingested.


Olga reviewed the ecological roles of mushrooms. Some varieties act as decomposers. In forests they break down dead organic matter so plants can reuse it, otherwise forests would be covered in mile-high piles of leaf litter. Fungi are resilient in their search for ways to survive. The field of mycoremediation, in which mushrooms are trained to eat new types of food, studies varieties as they’re used to break down pollutants such as spilled oil. Species have been formulated to break down fecal chloroforms in ponds near factory farms.

Many varieties release properties that are antibiotic, antifungal, antivirus, and antiparasitic. The versatile turkeytail mushroom has been sued by Japanese researchers to create cancer-fighting drugs, and the variety’s mycelium is being used to create molds for car parts and packaging materials.

Supermarkets and salad bars sell white button mushrooms which can be consumed raw, but Olga recommends all mushrooms be cooked, simply because they’ll taste better. The chitin element, like a shrimp’s exoskeleton, breaks down during cooking, and varieties contain elements we can’t absorb without heating them.


Olga had dozens of mushroom samples spread out on a table and passed them around. Collecting and identifying mushrooms is a sensory experience and touch and smell are important. Elements like spore color, veils, gill and stalk attachment, tubes, spines, teeth, and pores can all be used to identify. Some mushrooms are annuals while others are perennials. Some glow in the dark and others can be used to dye fabric. We passed around a variety of tinder conk, like caveman Otzi was carrying, and could feel the sample’s density. Olga recounted the story of a friend who, after accidentally leaving a tinder conk variety in the oven for too long, submerged the burned mushroom in water and tossed it in the trash. The mushroom continued to smolder and the trash can lit on fire. The apartment soon followed. Olga cautioned attendees to avoid mushrooms not grown in the U.S., specifically dried varieties that may be full of heavy metals which are absorbed like a sponge. Since common names vary, learning Latin names is important.

Olga owns and operates Smugtown mushrooms in Rochester, NY and has been cultivating mushrooms for six years, an interest that spiraled from research in wild plant medicine. She encouraged beginners to join a mushroom club and attend workshops. Comprehensive resources can be found through Cornellmushrooms.org and the North American Mycological Association.

Smugtown Mushrooms: www.smugtownmushrooms.com

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