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The Chinese people have been using shiitake mushrooms as a nutritional and medicinal food for over 6,000 years. One of the most well-known of the edible mushroom, shiitakes, have recently been discovered by the health food movement around the world and are considered to be one of the top superfoods most widely available. Instead of paying a premium price for shiitakes at your local health food store, however, shiitakes are relatively easy to grow and one of the easiest ways to get the nutritional and medicinal benefits your body needs.

What are Shiitake Mushrooms?

Hippocrates was a Greek philosopher and writer most famous for advising humanity to “let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”. Whereas our western society has separated food from medicine, the ancient Greeks, and several other cultures around the world, understood that the wide variety of foods available to us around the world could indeed provide all the needed nutrition and medicinal needs for our human bodies.

Shiitake mushrooms are native to East Asia and grow on the decaying wood of many types of deciduous trees. Like other mushrooms, the shiitake serves a unique purpose in forest ecosystems by helping to break down the lignin found in the wood of trees. Whereas other soil organisms can effectively break down leaves and other organic matter, it is the mushrooms that get the decomposition process started on fallen trees and limbs through breaking down the lignin so that the nutrients can be accessed by other soil organisms.

If it weren’t for the work of mushrooms in the forest, fallen trees and limbs would simply sit on the forest floor and not decompose into the rich humus that characterizes the forest soil. Fungi, then, are a fundamentally essential element to the overall health of a number of important ecosystems around the world.

Shiitake mushrooms are unique in that, apart from serving as an essential part of ecosystems, they also offer fantastic nutritional benefits to us humans. Shiitakes can be eaten fresh or dried and are one of the main ingredients in different Asian dishes such as miso soup.

Shiitake mushrooms were reportedly first cultivated in the 13th century during the Song Dynasty of China. As their popularity has grown, however, shiitake spores are widely available in most parts of the world and can be grown almost anywhere that an abundance of deciduous wood is available and where there are humid conditions.

How do Mushrooms Grow?

Mushrooms aren’t actually plants, but rather exist in their own kingdom. Many researchers believe that mushrooms are actually more closely related to animals than plants due to their innate behaviors.

Mushrooms, like the shiitake, grow extremely large network of a root-like system underneath the soil. These thin filaments are called hyphae and are the main mode of vegetative growth of mushrooms. The mushrooms that appear above ground are actually the “fruits” of the mushroom that only appear once the mushroom has grown enough hyphae underground.

If you have ever picked up a handful of rich humus from the forest floor, chances are that you have seen a number of white, stringy threads or fibers. These are the hyphae that colonize the forest floor and, as we mentioned above, are a fundamental part of the soil ecosystem.

The mushroom heads or fruits that appear above ground release spores that act like seeds. Once the mushroom head matures, it releases millions of microscopic spores into the environment where more hyphae are eventually born. Mushroom enthusiasts often make beautifully artistic mushroom spore prints through collecting mushrooms before they release their spores and collecting the spore drop on a piece of paper.

shiitake mushrooms growing on an innoculated log

Different Ways to Inoculate Logs

While you can try and grow your own shiitake mushrooms from spores that you collect from other shiitakes that are growing, it is far easier to simply purchase shiitake spores through commercially available shiitake spawn.

Mushroom spawn is simply any substance that has been inoculated with a certain type of mushroom mycelium. If the spores are the seeds of a mushroom, spawn resembles the small starter plants that you purchase from the hardware store to get your garden going. By purchasing shiitake spawn from a reputable mushroom grower, you will make sure that when you inoculate your logs where your mushrooms will grow, you will only have one type of mushroom seed.

There are a number of companies that specialize in growing their own shiitake spawn, and the most commonly available type of spawn is dowel spawn. Dowels are simply small pieces of wood, usually cylindrical in shape that come completely inoculated with shiitake mycelium. They should resemble a piece of food that has been left in the corner of your refrigerator for several weeks and has been taken over by mold.

To “plant” your mushrooms, you simply need to get the spawn into a hardwood deciduous log. The wood in your log is the growing medium for your shiitakes. The mycelium in the spawn will slowly begin to colonize the rest of the log and begin the slow process of breaking down the lignin.

Once the mycelium has grown and when the log is sufficiently colonized, you should start to see your first “flush” of edible mushroom fruits. As long as you keep your colonized logs protected from the sun and sufficiently humid, shiitakes can produce yields of mushrooms for several years. If you live in a dry area or experience extended droughts, you may need to wet your logs with a hose once a day to keep the mycelium active. Mushrooms like humid conditions, and if your logs begin to dry out, the mycelium can die before producing mushrooms.

To get the dowel spawn (seed) into the logs (growing medium), the easiest and most efficient technique is simply to drill several holes evenly spaced around your log (the thicker the better). Drill the holes about the same diameter as the dowel spawn that you have.

Next, stick the dowel spawn into the holes so that they fit tightly. If you need to lightly hammer the dowels to get them to fit snugly, you can do so with care. To avoid colonization of other mushroom spawn floating around in the air, it is best to seal the holes where you inserted your mushroom spawn with the wax of a simple melted candle.

Place your logs in a shady, humid area. If you have several logs, you can stack them in a crisscrossed manner so as to allow air flow. Keep your logs humid, but not dripping wet and after 6-9 months you should see your logs come alive with delicious, nutritious, and medicinal shiitake mushrooms.

healthy shiitake mushrooms resting on a bed of asparagus

Health Benefits of Shiitake Mushrooms

Shiitake mushrooms have been shown to contain all eight essential amino acids that are bodies need. Additionally, shiitakes come with certain chemical compounds that can help your body fight off oxidative damage. They are also one of the most concentrated sources of the numerous B vitamins that our bodies need.

Shiitake mushrooms also help to regulate your cholesterol and fight off aging due to their strong anti-oxidant properties. For vegetarians and vegans, shiitakes also constitute a great source of non-meat based protein.

Benefits of Mushrooms to the Local Environment

We have already mentioned that mushrooms of any type are an essential element to any healthy soil. By cultivating your own mushrooms in inoculated logs, you are helping to propagate needed mushroom mycelium in your surrounding soil.

Furthermore, once your shiitakes have finished flushing, or producing edible mushrooms, you will be left with a number of logs that are completely filled with health mycelium. These “spent” logs can be added to the compost pile or placed directly around fruit trees. Since fruit trees prefer a fungal dominated soil, the mycelium in your mushroom logs will reach into the soil and add health and vibrancy to the soil around your fruit trees. If you are lucky, you might even find a few extra shiitake mushrooms popping up underneath your orchard.

Another idea for your spent mushroom logs is to use them as borders for raised garden beds. The mycelium in these logs will add to the fertility of the soil in your garden bed and could help to increase the yields of whatever you are growing.

Shiitake Mushrooms as an Easy, Healthy and Ecologically Sustainable Crop

Chinese cultures have long understood that growing your own mushrooms is an easy way to get the nutrition you need. The ecological benefits of growing your own mushrooms can also help to boost the fertility and overall soil health of your site. With so many different suppliers of quality shiitake mushroom spawn, one fallen tree can give you more than enough logs to enjoy a delicacy for years on end.

About Author

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Tobias Roberts is a writer and permaculture farmer based in the mountains of El Salvador. He runs a natural building cooperative in the Central American region as well as a diversified permaculture orchard.