A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an engima — served in a pita

Next time you’re playing Twenty Questions, choose mushrooms. When the inevitable first question comes – animal, vegetable, or mineral? – you can say “none of the above,” and you’re on your way to victory. Mushrooms are neither animal nor vegetable (mineral was never in contention), and they have their very own Kingdom to prove it. (So do bacteria, another Twenty Questions winner. Too bad there’s no high-stakes World Series of Twenty Questions.)

I had to channel my seventh-grade biology teacher, Mrs. Weiss, to remember the standard-issue taxonometric categories: Kingdom, Phyllum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species. There are many mnemonics to help remember this, but all the ones I’ve encountered have some kind of flaw that renders them unmemorable. I mean, really, who plays chess on fine green sand? Who even heard of fine green sand? And, if King Phillip really did have great sex, I don’t think I want to know about it. Besides, there’s disagreement about how many categories there are, and which life forms belong in which categories. Luckily, for the purposes of today’s post, all that matters is that fungi are different from both plants and animals, and they’re really, really weird.

For starters, the mushroom itself is only the tip of the iceberg. That is, it’s the fruiting body of an organism, the mycelium, which consists of long thin filaments that grow and spread, and eventually fuse with other filaments to create the mushroom. Although most mushrooms are of a size that you can hold in your hand, the mycelium beneath can reach horror-film proportions, covering tens, or even hundreds of acres. (Do you know where your children are?)

The process by which mushrooms reproduce is well-understood. The fruiting body produces a spore, which is then carried by wind, water, or any other kind of fungal transportation to a new location, where it tries to find another spore in order to mate and create a new mycelium. The conditions in which healthy mycelia thrive and fruit, though, are mysterious and elusive, which is why black truffles cost $1500 a pound.

Modern mycology has unlocked the secrets of many of the edible mushrooms, which is why the white button ones you find at the supermarket don’t cost $1500 a pound; we’ve figured out how to grow them in captivity. Portobello, oyster, and enoki mushrooms are also commonly cultivated, and some growers have even had success with morels. But, for every kind of mushroom grown commercially, there are hundreds known only known in the wild, or in the basement.

Some of them, of course, we’re content to leave in the wild. A lot of mushrooms taste bad, and a few of them will kill you. But the first guy to figure out how to reliably grow chanterelles will make a mint. And, of course, those black truffles …

One of the mushrooms that mushroom science has gotten pretty good at is the shiitake. Unlike most cultivated mushrooms, which grow in a manure bed (the composted, sterilized kind – no need to break out the Lysol), shiitakes grow in wood. Sawdust works, but so do oak logs. Since Kevin and I have a particular liking for shiitakes, an abundance of oak logs, and the damp, shady conditions mushrooms love, we’re trying our hand at mushroom growing.

We cut down some trees a while back, and this past weekend we started inoculating the logs with the spore. While this procedure sounds like it involves a clean room and a hypodermic needle, it actually involves a mallet and a drill.

The spore, which you can buy from a variety of vendors, comes growing in little wooden dowels. We ordered ours from Fungi Perfecti, but we also traded for some from Field and Forest so we can compare the two. The dowels come in a little box, where you’re supposed to let them recover from their trauma for a few days before you begin the inoculation. We’re sure ours survived the trip, since they’ve created a mushroomy white mass in their box in the refrigerator.

To get the spore from the dowel to the log, you drill a hole, insert the dowel, hammer it home, and seal it with a little beeswax. Each of our fifteen logs is about four feet long, and they take forty or fifty dowels apiece. We got a third of the job done yesterday, and we’re planning to finish today and tomorrow.

Once your logs are inoculated and set on their ends in a shady spot, all the work is done. You just wait. The thing is, though, that even if you do everything according to instructions there’s no guarantee you’ll get a crop. And instructions from one mushroom expert can vary significantly from instructions from another. Do you let the wood sit for two months before you use it? Do you soak it before you put in the dowels? Do you seal it?

We did our best to do whatever there seemed to be a consensus on, but we’re not counting our chickens. ( I mean, we are counting our chickens, but only literally. There are eight, and they don’t figure in this post.) The moisture content could be just a little too high, or too low. It might be too shady, or too sunny. Too hot, too cold. Venus might not be in the Seventh House. The conditions in which even these most ordinary of mushrooms thrive are mysterious and elusive.

Check back in a year or so.

7 people are having a conversation about “A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an engima — served in a pita

  1. If you want to really freak out about fungi, read the piece in the May 25th New Yorker about the sudden extinctions of frogs and bats.


  2. Unlike chickens, fungi are not something on our list of things to try ourselves. Mostly because I’m not a fan. Though my wife and 5-yr old are – in fact, Jack is probably the only preschooler to ever be sent to daycare with portobella mushrooms as a snack (which he requested) – perhaps I should do it for them

    for what it’s worth, I always use “Kings Play Chess On Fine Grained Sand”

  3. Jim — I’m glad to see that your son doesn’t share your anti-fungal predispositiion. And I’m sure that your “fine-grained sand” is where my “fine green sand” came from. But still, chess on sand?

  4. If the answer to “animal, vegetable, or mineral?” is “none of the above.” doesn’t that narrow the field faster than anything else? Want to play Twenty Questions for money?

  5. Aaron — I’m not sure whether it does or it doesn’t. There may be more items in the “none of the above” category (carbon atom, sunbeam, handshake) than in any of the Big Three, but counting isn’t feasible.

    Now that I think of it, though, isn’t one of the rules that it has to be animal, vegetable, or mineral?

    So much for that post.

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