The fungus is among us
The ancient Greeks used to think that the mushrooms were sent from Zeus by his lightning, according to James Bolus.
"Because they would show up after the rain," said the chef and owner of Backwoods Bar and Kitchen in Dallas.
Pennsylvania is the biggest producer of mushrooms in the United States; followed by California. Foragers, like James, and foraging clubs find the fungus in the wild, while small farms are growing unique mushrooms to meet demand.
James is my cousin — our dads were brothers. He's the first person I knew to go foraging. In August, we met in the woods in Luzerne County. James had with him a packet of information about wild mushrooms and the National Audubon Society’s Field Guide to mushrooms in North America.
James always brings a field guide with him to forage and does not rely on apps or an internet search.
Mushrooms are not a plant or animal, he said. They have their own kingdom.
“There's 10 subphyla, 35 classes, 12 subclasses and 129 orders," James said. "Of the estimated 3.8 million fungi species, only 148,000 have been described."
There are four types of mushrooms: saprotrophic, parasitic, endophytic and mycorrhizal.
Saprotrophic are decomposers, like oyster mushrooms. They grow on dead and decaying matter, like dead trees.
Parasitic fungi harm their hosts. The most popular parasitic mushroom is called cordyceps. It will take over an insect. They're very dangerous to humans, but that’s only if you’re playing the video game or watching the TV show "The Last of Us." In real life, cordyceps have been used for years in traditional Chinese medicine for a wide-range of conditions.
Endophytic are the least understood of all the fungi, said James. They live within a plant but don’t cause them harm; they also don’t provide any benefits.
"So it's not a symbiotic relationship," he said. "They're just hanging out together, which is interesting.”
Last is mycorrhizal.
"That's going to be most of the ground mushrooms that you find," he said.
James isn’t the only person out there foraging. WVIA News joined the Nature Conservancy’s Mushroom 101 Program in the Poconos.
Dave Wasilewski from the Wyoming Valley Mushroom Club guided a small group of future foragers at the Nature Conservancy's Long Pond Preserve.
"There's another old saying amongst mushroom enthusiast, every mushroom is edible once," he said.
Wasilewski is a citizen scientist. He wore army fatigues and a Wyoming Valley Mushroom Club T-shirt. Wasilewski has been hunting for mushrooms for 40 years.
"I've really become quite interested in collecting mushrooms to study to preserve and pass along to researchers,” he told the group.
He uses mostly Latin names for the mushrooms and carries with him a knife to cut mushrooms, a small eyeglass to get a much closer look at the fungi and a clear plastic tackle box with air holes to store his specimens.
Both Wasilewski and James say before you start foraging, learn your trees.
"Some mushrooms prefer being in contact with coniferous trees ... over hardwood," said James. "A lot of mushrooms grow directly on trees. But for the most part ... the woods are the woods. They're all going to be kind of grown together. So you never really know where one is going to pop up.”
When I met up with James it was August. There was a dry spell followed by rain. He says that’s an ideal time to forage.
James said when identifying mushrooms there’s a few characteristics to keep in mind. Look at the shape, size and texture of the cap. Flip it over and check out the bottom of the cap, is it a polypore, which looks like a sponge, or does it have gills? James recommends beginners avoid mushrooms with the thin-papery structures under the mushroom cap that look like an accordion folder. Most lethally poisonous mushrooms have gills, he said.
Check out the stem. If it has a ring around it, James said to also avoid that one.
There are many edible mushrooms, but that doesn’t mean you should eat them.
"When we're talking about mushrooms that are favorable for the plate, we call them choice mushrooms," he said.
Unless it's an oyster mushroom, James also always avoids white mushrooms when foraging.
While mushrooms and a vast variety of them seem to just sprout up just about everywhere in nature, growing them for commercial purposes is complicated and scientific.
You can’t have mushrooms and Pennsylvania in the same sentence without mentioning the Kennett Square area of Chester County.
Mushroom farming started in the region in the late 1800s, said Maria Gorgo, an educator from Penn State Extension.
William Swayne was a florist who lived in Kennett Square. In the nineteenth century he decided to grow mushrooms beneath his greenhouse benches, said Gorgo. He became successful, mostly because of his close proximity to Philadelphia.
“He was followed by other ... farmers," she said. "They started growing mushrooms in Southeastern Pennsylvania."
Pennsylvania is the number one producer of mushrooms, but it’s not necessarily because of climate or soil or any other factors that typically impact crops.
"You can pretty much grow it ... anywhere," she said. "It's a 12 month, seven days a week production.”
James knew I was on a mushroom journey. He had an opportunity to tour To-Jo Mushrooms. It’s a fourth-generation family farm in Avondale. On our drive in, about 10 miles from the farm, we passed a water tower declaring Kennett Square as the mushroom capital of the world.
To-Jo has 70 rooms for growing mushrooms. They are spread out over seven locations in a 20 to 25 mile perimeter. Tony Summa is To-Jo’s growing coordinator and was our tour guide. He’s also a Northeast PA native who grew up in Moscow.
Summa first took us to where they compost the soil used to grow the mainly white and brown mushrooms that can be found at grocery stores all over Pennsylvania.
Piles of compost smoked on the humid, chilly gray day. It’s made up of straw, hay, manure, cocoa shells, corn cobs, gypsum and other organic items.
Summa told us each ingredient provides a different nutritional component for the mushrooms. Each mushroom grower has their own unique formula, he said.
Large trucks flip and aerate the compost. The core needs to stay hot to kill microbes and pathogens.
Summa then took us into a cinderblock grow house, known as a double because of the shape of the roof.
The grow rooms are 70 feet long. Mushroom spores and compost are mixed on wooden beds. There’s seven levels of beds inside the dark rooms. The first room smelled like thyme. They put the herb dust in the air to keep gnats away.
"You can see it starting to get a little fuzzy, and that's where the mycelium is starting to colonize and get together," he pointed out.
Fungus spores are microscopic. Before they’re placed in the compost, Summa said the spores are put on a smaller piece of organic matter, like grain or millet. In the wild, spores are transferred mostly by the wind.
Spores develop into that fuzzy mycelium that looks like winter frost on the compost. It’s the unseen network of fungus, or the roots. Mushrooms then sprout from mycelium.
Hunter Vargo has a small mushroom farm in Hawley. He compared mushrooms to apples.
"The fruit is made to reproduce and die off the apple tree," he said. "It's the same thing, the mushrooms are made to just pop up for a short period of time and die and release spores to try and conquer the world."
To-Jo monitors the temperature throughout the entire grow process. I was happy to be wearing a coat when we checked out the first room. By the time we got to the last grow room of the tour, seemingly perfect round white mushroom caps sprouted up in dense patches. My coat was also less necessary.
Summa handed us small flashlights before we went into the grow rooms.
The grow houses are kept dark because the mycelium doesn't like light, he said.
The mushrooms are picked from the grow house. They’re brought back to To-Jo’s factory for processing.
Plastic packages of mushrooms rolled down an assembly line. Plastic wrap was placed over the top and stuck with a variety of grocery store-specific labels.
Somewhere between foraging and large-scale farming are the small mushroom farmers, like Vargo.
Vargo is 20. Mountain View Mushrooms is a small operation in Vargo's neighbor’s barn. He works as a farmhand, feeding the horses, pigs and chickens, in exchange for using the space. He built the grow room himself.
He patched up some concrete holes, put up a little structure on the backside of the barn and added a heating and cooling system to keep the grow room somewhat climate controlled.
During the pandemic, Vargo's mom bought a mushroom growing kit from Walmart. He became fascinated with the process.
Vargo’s offered his first harvest to the Woodloch Springs Resort in Hawley at no charge.
"That's how my business started," he said.
Then his teacher from Wallenpaupack Area, Clayton LaCoe, suggested Hunter sell at the Scranton Co-Op Farmers Market.
"I just took a chance and went there and it's been doing really good. I love it there," he said. "It's a really nice community to be around.”
On a recent Friday, I heard Vargo sharing his mushroom knowledge with a hesitant buyer. She walked away with a paper bag of mushrooms.
Hunter grows his mushrooms on pieces of hardwood. He first mixes his own substrate, which is like the compost mix at To-Jo. He also heats it up to kill off any bacteria. In a sterile room, he inoculates the mix with mushroom spores.
His grow room looks like a walk-in cooler you’d find in a restaurant. Inside, big fuzzy lion’s mane mushrooms sprout up like clouds on logs covered in plastic. Tiny white enoki mushrooms grow in large dense patches like white grass. He has vibrant blue oyster mushrooms and puffy, thick king pearl oyster mushrooms.
He likes to keep the room at 55 to 60 degrees.
“Things grow really slow, but the product looks way better," he said.
Vargo learned how to grow from YouTube and now documents his process on his own channel.
The Scranton Farmers Market closes on Wednesday, Nov. 22. Afterwards he plans to keep selling to local restaurants and maybe look for an indoor winter market to sell at.
Back in the woods in Luzerne County, James and I found so many different types of mushrooms.
"I try to learn a couple every year," he said.
We took home black trumpet mushrooms. He said they're a very specific hardwood forest mushroom that grow mostly in the summer months.
"If I spent the whole day out here, I could definitely find several pounds of these," he said.
Using a sharp knife, James cuts the mushrooms close to their base. He said mushrooms that grow on trees are woodier the closer you get to the tree, so you can snap them off at the cap.
When he got back to his restaurant, he made a meal with our haul of black trumpets.
James said mushrooms should not be eaten raw.
"It's really hard for your body to digest," he said. "And some mushrooms have compounds in that you have to cook off to make them edible."
Mushrooms are more about texture than taste.
“The oyster mushroom, for instance, literally has the texture of an oyster once you cook it," he said. "The chicken mushroom ... actually kind of has the texture of chicken. So there's a, I would say there's a wider range of textures and flavors."
My love for the outdoors might have started as a kid at James' house in Benton Twp. He always loved hiking.
"I've just always loved the idea of just free food, I guess natural food ... eating from the land, like it just feels right.”