By Tom Nauman
This month's column on conserving and propagation mushrooms comes from a suggestion by Bob Heinek of New Carlisle, Indiana. Bob would also like me to address some common practices such as: mesh bags for collecting, throwing the wash water out in the back yard instead of down the sink, cutting the mushroom above ground level to prevent damage to the mycellium, and leaving one or two in a patch for "seed".
Bob also says that this year he has been taking any old, bug infested oyster mushrooms that he didn't want to eat and spreading them around on likely looking logs. In my opinion this certainly won't hurt. Old, bug infested mushrooms have probably already released most of their spores but there should still be some left in the gills to start the growth cycle anew. You might try mixing a fresh mushroom in with them occasionally because it should have more spores available. The real trick would be to know which mushroom is ready to release its spores and use that one. I'm not familiar with how the oyster mushroom (pleurotus ostreatus) is cultivated. But I know that spawn kits are readily available. The oyster is one of the choice edibles that can be found year-round.
Vicky and I are firm believers in using mesh bags for gathering mushrooms. The theory is that the mushrooms will release spores as you carry them through the woods. If you're using the old stand-by bread wrapper or plastic bag, most of the spores released will stay in the bag and therefore not go back into the woods to start a new patch. The mesh bag will allow the spores to escape.
If you've never seen morel spores, here's an easy technique to use next spring. Take several morels that have open pits. In otherwords, the ridges that surround the pits are not close together. This won't work with most little grey mushrooms because they're not mature enough. Lay them on a sheet of dark plastic (like a garbage bag) inside your house near a window so that they get sunlight. Keep the window closed if it's a windy day because the wind will scatter the spores so that you can't see them. After a few minutes or even up to several hours you should see a white or yellow powder form under the mushrooms. If you carefully lift the mushroom you might even see the familiar pit pattern where the spores have fallen from the pits closest to the plastic.
Mushrooms are mostly water and they contain bacteria. If you carry a plastic bag by grasping it at the top, you're making an airtight container. An airtight plastic bag is the perfect habitat for faster bacteria growth. So using a mesh bag will keep your mushrooms fresher if you hunt all day like I do.
There's a third reason to use a mesh beg. One hunter we know from Michigan says that he has the mushrooms home and in the skillet before they even think of spoiling, so he still uses a plastic bag. If he were hunting in Illinois he would probably also be a firm believer in mesh bags. Why? Because we have what's known as multi flora rose in our timbers and pastures. If you're not familiar with them, picture a regular rose bush that's about 16 feet in diameter and 8 feet high! And the thorns aren't straight, they're like little fish hooks. And once they snag you it's reminiscent of a science fiction movie where the rest of the plant seems to wrap itself around you.
I've seen some multi flora rose bushes that would stop a charging elephant - but the same bushes won't stop me if there's a mushroom growing underneath. One particular multi flora rose bush in recent memory was growing over a patch of 122 morels. It takes a certain combination of loose clothes, a good hiking stick, sturdy boots, and a sense of taste that's greater than your pain tolerance level to even think of going in after the mushrooms. I know there were 122 mushrooms in the patch because I wasn't afraid to go in after them. Multi flora rose will rip a plastic bag or paper sack to shreds in seconds. The nylon mesh bags I use have literally been through hundreds of multi flora rose bushes without any damage and without losing a single mushroom. That's reason enough for me to use the mesh.
Thanks to Bob for his excellent questions. We'll finish answering them next month.