Foraging With Paul: Lessons From A Mycologist

Monday December 21, 2015

Mushrooms with paul

If you have ever heard of Hollyhock, you will know it is an internationally renowned centre for lifelong learning on Cortes Island where people gather to learn and share knowledge for the enrichment and betterment of the earth and all creatures on it.  David, Billy and myself had the incredible opportunity to learn about mushrooms there from world expert, Paul Stamets and his team of four.  It was five days of travel (land, air AND sea), mushroom taxonomy (can you say “Cantharellus infundibuliformis”?) nourishing meals and best of all, foraging for mushrooms in the old growth forests.

 Paul Stamets is a well respected expert mycologist with over 30 years experience.  He has identified new species of fungi, pioneered new techniques for the cultivation of edible and medicinal mushrooms, is active in government research on the medicinal properties of fungi and also passionately works to use mushrooms for mycorestoration – a term he himself coined, meaning the use of fungi to rehabilitate contaminated environments.

We were a group of about forty persons who had come to learn from Paul for a variety of reasons.  There were environmentally conscious people wanting to learn how to help reduce toxicity in the world, farmers hoping to make their land more productive sustainably, mushroom hunters who simply wanted to learn more and even a doctor and nurse desiring to learn something that will help their patients.  Even though we represented a huge, diverse background of knowledge, I think it is safe to say that everyone of us was initially overwhelmed by Paul’s goal that we learn the Latin names of 25 different mushrooms.  He showed us slide after slide of beautiful pictures of fungi we might find, drilling the names into us through story and repetition.  At the end of this course, some DID know 25 names (I had learned 10 names – if you count common names) but ALL of us learned more than we expected.

Nothing cemented mushroom taxonomy more than being out in the forest; seeing these live fungi for ourselves.  This was by far the most exciting part of the trip:  stepping into the forest, feeling the cool, ancient quiet settle into you, scanning the rich, organic ground, hoping to see SOMETHING.  Suddenly, a tiny mushroom pops out at you, and then an entire bunch of similar shapes stand out where, just a moment ago, you had seen only forest floor.  Then you step more carefully, not wanting to crush any hidden treasures.  We were fortunate enough to be taking this course in a year with exceptional bounty as far as fungi goes.  That first day out in the forest, we saw mushrooms everywhere; alongside the roads and pathways, at the base of trees, on trees, covering dead logs and hiding in the moss.  By the second day of foraging I was on the look out for more unusual shapes and colors; for something different than what I had found the day before.  I was not disappointed.  After a couple of hours of searching, we all stood back by the road, showing off our finds.  Wetook pictures of particularly interesting, rare or beautiful mushrooms, and asked Paul and his team to identify them for us.  What impresses me the most is the amazing diversity in fungal shape, color, size, scent and even taste.  Looking at pictures is one thing, but actually finding and seeing with your own eyes the sheer variety in the fungal world simply fills me with wonder.  As I see more mushrooms, I get an inkling of why mycologists are passionate about fungi.

We spent considerably more time in class learning not only mushroom identification, but also all other facets of fungi: their medicinal uses, mycorestoration, how to eat them (candycap cookies are my favourite!), how to grow them, which ones are toxic, which ones are psychoactive and how to make paper or hats out of them.

Medicinally, mushrooms have been well studied scientifically for their immunomodulatory effects.  On PubMed, a government website of published, peer-reviewed studies, typing “reishi mushroom” into the search field yields 548 results alone.  In Paul’s book, MycoMedicinals, there is a chart (p. 13) showing different therapeutic effects attributed to key mushrooms.  For example:  reishi addresses each effect save one;  cordyceps is known for improving physical endurance, especially for athletes, as it increases blood flow in the body;  lion’s mane is being studied for its neuroregenerative properties;  agaricus is a rare fungi that has traditionally been used to treat respiratory conditions (Billy found one on Cortes – way to go Billy!);  and both chaga and turkey tail have anti-tumor properties.  For more information, please reference Paul Stamet’s book, MycoMedicinals, or google PubMed.

During all lessons, in or out of class, Paul never once discussed the medicinal mushrooms that he produces, known as Host Defense.  He made one comment only about not wanting to plug his product when teaching this course. Working at Community, I was keen to ask him a few questions about his mushroom products and cornered him on the last two days to find out more.  Paul and his team have collected all fungi specimens themselves and keep these prime samples refrigerated to encourage dormancy until needed for culturing.  In his own lab, Paul grows the fungi on sterile petri dishes until heavy metals and toxins are no longer present.  Then he uses different methods to extract the desirable constituents, such as alcohol extraction for terpenes, boiling water for water-soluble compounds and cold-water extraction for things like enzymes (which are heat sensitive).  Paul’s products are what is called “vertically integrated”, which means that he controls every single step of manufacture, from collection and growth of the mushrooms, to extraction and packaging.  This significantly reduces many potential problems, like contamination.  For any medicinal mushroom consumption, it is imperative that they be certified organic as fungi are very good at absorbing toxins.  Which leads us to another topic…

Mycorestoration is probably one of Paul’s favourite topics.  Paul has researched and continues to work on ways of successfully addressing some of the environmental problems we humans face (and create).  One study that surprised everyone was where four piles of diesel-contaminated soils were treated in four different ways.  Two were treated with bacteria; one with nothing (as a control); and the fourth with mycelial spawn (essentially fungal spore or “seeds”).  The pile inoculated with mycelium not only effectively broke down the oil, it also (and this was the surprise) became an oasis of life.  As the oyster mushrooms were maturing, they attracted insects, which attracted birds who dropped seeds, which essentially re-greened the pile.  In contrast, the other three piles remained black, lifeless and stinky.  You can read Paul Stamet’s book, Mycelium Running:  How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World, for a more detailed description on this and other mycorestoration experiments.

As you can see, using fungi to help clean up our environment is an exciting area of research.  Mycogardening is how I will use mushrooms to increase the health of the soil around my own house.  We were given little wooden plugs inoculated with mycelium spore and shown how to grow mushrooms on logs.  Paul’s team also demonstrated how to grow garden giants on wood chips, an easy-to-start mushroom that can grow to a large size – fun for kids!  What is so wonderful about fungi, is how the mycelium, the underground portion, is so good at drawing nutrients from a distance, which benefits all plants nearby.  Mycelium can have a symbiotic effect on plants, drawing nutrients, providing protection, and helping most plants reach healthier growth as a consequence.  Fungi also absorb toxins, so always be wary of eating any edible mushrooms near roads or toxic sites.  They can actually break down some toxic chemicals but not all, and they take up heavy metals from the soil.  We were shown many poisonous mushrooms, both in class and in the forest.  If I took one important lesson from this, it is to exercise extreme caution when looking for edible mushrooms!  Some of the toxic fungi look similar to edible ones and if you are not one hundred percent sure, do not risk eating it.  Fortunately, some of the more common delectables, such as chantarelles and matsuake, are fairly easy to distinguish.  There are handy guides for identification; David Aurora’s book, All That The Rain Promises And More, is one that came highly recommended.

This was a trip full of many things; mushroom lore, scientific information, foraging and good food (did I mention candycap cookies, the excellent cuisine at Hollyhock, the oyster bake and, of course, edible mushrooms?).  This entire experience has opened my eyes to a new world; the world of fungi and all of the amazing things this organism can do for the betterment of this earth and every creature on it.  Cortes Island was an exceptional setting for us to learn about mushrooms, with Hollyhock providing a place our souls could really make a meaningful connection with the land and each other.  The next time you are out in nature hiking or just going for a walk, particularly after a rainfall, look for the mushrooms.  You may be surprised with what you find!