Growing Shiitake Mushrooms

Here's the lowdown on growing shiitake mushrooms, an exotic Oriental one-legged edible.

| September/October 1980

In ancient China and Japan, the savory shiitake (it's pronounced "she-tar-kee") mushroom was reserved for royalty, and its deep forest habitats—where the fungi grew wild on the logs of shii trees and other hardwoods—were closely guarded. Then, some thousand years ago, Japanese farmers began growing shiitake mushrooms. Today the island nation exports more than three million pounds of the firm, slightly chewy morsels every a year to countries all over the world.

These gourmet treats (which are much more flavorful than the commonly available white button mushrooms) are an excellent source of high-quality protein, fiber, vitamin C, the B vitamins, calcium, phosphorus, iron, and trace elements ... and contain even fewer calories than do apples. Furthermore, clinical tests have demonstrated the shiitake's ability to reduce serum cholesterol in humans by 10-20%, and—when fed to laboratory animals—the fungi have seemed to help prevent polio and influenza infections.

Food for All

Besides being a dinnertime treat and a marketable crop (the food co-ops here in Madison, Wisconsin are eager to buy all I can produce, at about $2.00 a pound), the shiitake (Lentinus edodes) can provide food for your animals. No, the critters don't eat the mushrooms (which are far too tasty to be used as livestock feed) ... but they'll love the straw, bark, and paper compost that remains after the harvest. These fungi, you see, are lignicolous: that is, they break down the lignin that makes such wastes unsuitable for animal rations, and—at the same time—release vitamins, carbohydrates, cellulose, and sugars ... as well as a slightly sweet aroma. (In palatability tests, cows and pigs chose mushroom compost over conventional feeds every time!)

Though the mushrooms should ideally be eaten within two days after they're picked, they do keep longer than the common white variety and are easily dried whole in a 140°F oven or—better yet—outdoors on a hot day. To reconstitute them, simply soak the fungi for 20 to 30 minutes in cool water or for 15 minutes in hot water. They won't swell up very much, but will become quite pliable.

Shitake Cultivation

The best "culture" on which to grow the shiitake contains straw, corncobs, 10% oak bark (an important ingredient), and up to 50% paper. Oat hulls, sawdust, and other similar farm wastes can also be employed, but—whatever you use—be sure to grind the material up well.

Of course, you'll also need mushroom seed (or spawn, as it's properly called). This can be obtained from The Kinoko Company. Use about one ounce (28 grams) of spawn per pound of dry waste. If you purchase already seeded wood chips, simply allow five to ten chips for each standard compost container.

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