Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Mushroom Logs

I always thought mushrooms grew out of old logs by some act of nature too complex to understand (if your last biology class was as long ago as mine). We grew up on the toadstools of Alice in Wonderland and the Wind in the Willows, after all.

Here in the Northwest's coastal rainforest there are all sorts of weird things growing on logs, from mushrooms and moss to fungi used by the old-timers like ivory scrimshaw. Enter the human quest for variety, even as chanterelles and morels grow wild in our hills. Enter the Honey Grove Mushroom Company. At least that is what I am calling it for now.

If one feels like a mountain man (or woman) and has good, woodsy friends in the "know", then one can actually buy mushroom starts (a.k.a. mycology spores) and drill thousands of little holes into oak and maple and alder logs for may weekends in a row, with these same friends at your side, and the music blaring, as you stand in the car port and bat off the cold, damp, early March chill.

After filling these thousands of holes with the mycelium plugs and syringing melted wax on top of the holes to protect each plug, you end up with a pile of logs you have hopefully tagged so to remember the difference between the yellow oysters and the white, the meitakes and the shitakes, the lion's mane and whatever else came in the bags of funny, worm looking things.

This has been our main "event" for the past several weekends. Our mushroom plugs actually arrived in January and some of the more industrious in the group set right to it. Problem was, you have to find the right kind of wood to screw these little buggers into. It can't be just any wood and, since we specialize in an abundance of alder here, it, of course, wasn't on the good wood list for most of the mushroom starts.

Where to find oak in the Coast Range became the chant, at least at our household? Some of our friends scoured the valley area around Corvallis for friends with oak they didn't mind felling. That was the other part of the prerequisite. The wood couldn't be new, but it couldn't be old. Felled within 2-3 weeks was just right. What! This would mean you had time to scout the trees, convince the landowner you were just going to take down a few, leave them lay for several weeks, and still have time to come back and buck them up to fit in the back of the truck. And, the drilling and plugging hadn't even begun!

I had no idea where to find oak because we don't have that many friends in the valley, but why go so far afield? There was an oak stand right down at the end of Honey Grove Road and I had noticed a toppled tree that probably fell in January. I called the owner, a local logger, and told him what we were doing. "Sure, go ahead. Just don't let the cows out". I promised to trade him some gate latches for the wood.

I would like to say that we were smart by waiting until two of the four families had completed the mushroom plugging experiment. We certainly capitalized on not copying their mistakes, but really we were just late to the races, as they say. For once this was to our benefit. Our neighbor drilled his plugs too deep and may or may not see mushrooms out of his logs. His vet wife figured out how to melt the wax on the barbecue and use a syringe to get it in the holes, of which she gave us her leftovers from her vet bag. This was a great piece of field ingenuity!

Karen and Allen, after reading up on mushrooms and searching for techniques of plugging online, suggested we should team up with them to see if we could improve the process forged by our pioneer friends. With two teams of two working together, I think we had the more efficient production line because the job really broke out into 4 parts. There was the drilling of holes, the setting of plugs, the hammering of plugs, and the waxing of the top of the plug. Over two weekends we were able to insert all 6000 plugs and still stand up straight at the end of the day!

The logs have since been stacked in the woods in Lincoln log piles, some more artfully done than others. We have all chosen spots we think mushrooms might find attractive, either down by the Honey Grove Creek, under a canopy of fir and moss, or, in our case nestled into the side of a north facing hill not far from our spring holding tank.

Our location, while tantalizing for mushrooms, poses somewhat of a problem for collection. It's not as if I can peak out the kitchen door to see if a flush is coming on. I will have to make regular trips across the creek to check the logs. Whether the sheep will beat me to it, I don't know.

In the end, we won't know whether our technique worked any better than our friends' for at least 6 months and as long as two years. Don't expect the Honey Grove Mushroom Co. in a grocery near you anytime soon or maybe ever, but I like the sound of the name and maybe we will adopt it as our signature when referring to the act of standing in the cold with friends and music and a task at hand.

Photo: (top) Karen, Greg, and me sinking mycelium plugs into an oak log; (middle) a closer look at what we were doing; (bottom) Allen drilling the holes for the plugs

All Rights Reserved. Copyright 2009 Scottie Jones

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