Every gardener can and should incorporate gourmet and medicinal mushrooms into their growing spaces.
If you’ve been here before, you probably know that we’re fond of fungi, both wild-foraged and fungi we grow at home in our garden/yard.
Living at the base of the Appalachian Mountains in Greenville SC, puts us smack dab in the middle of one of the premier mushroom foraging areas in the world. We also like to cultivate our own gourmet and medicinal mushrooms, so that we can still have plenty of our favorite varieties around even if we don’t have time to go out to forage in the woods. Some of our favorites, like shiitakes, aren’t native here, so foraging for them isn’t even a possibility.
Gourmet, Medicinal Mushrooms Come In All Shapes, Sizes, Colors, and Flavors
We’ve encountered folks who say, “I don’t like mushrooms.” To us, that’s like saying, “I don’t like drinking liquid.”
Mushrooms come in such a dazzling array of colors, sizes, textures, and flavors, that it’s impossible to make a general statement about them. There are mushrooms that taste like maple syrup, crab meat, steak, apricots & almonds, etc.. If you don’t like mushrooms, it’s likely due to the fact that you haven’t tried ones that suit your flavor palate, and are basing your poor opinion of edible mushrooms off of the rather bland and common button mushrooms found in grocery stores.
While there are likely hundreds of native edible fungi where you live (and others that will make you sick or kill you), many gourmet fungi are difficult if not impossible to grow at home.
Mycorrhizal Fungi Versus Decomposers
The difficult-to-cultivate mushrooms tend to be the mycorrhizal fungi, the species that form symbiotic relationships with plants.
90% of terrestrial plants form mycorrhizal relationships, devoting a significant amount of the energy they produce via photosynthesis to feeding carbohydrates to their fungal partners via the plants’ roots. In exchange, those fungi: 1) bring nutrients and water from the soil back to the plants, 2) protect the plants from soil dwelling pathogenic microorganisms, and 3) connect them into an integrated communication & resource-swapping network that scientists not-so-jokingly refer to as the “wood wide web.”
Popular edible mycorrhizal fungi that you might have heard of/eaten include chanterelles, morels, and truffles. What makes these mushrooms difficult to cultivate is that they require specific host trees to grow, and can take years to mature to the point of producing a harvest.
Other species of mushrooms serve as decomposers. Primary decomposers (saprobes) are often found on sick or dying trees; they start breaking down the tough lignin and cellulose that give trees their structure. As we’ve written about elsewhere, if these fungi had come along a little earlier in earth’s history, we wouldn’t have the abundance of “fossil fuels” that we enjoy today.
Secondary decomposers are the fungi that break down organic matter on a forest floor (leaves, sticks, remnants of fallen trees, etc). Tertiary decomposers are the fungi that remain in the soil for years after the primary and secondary decomposers have done their work, helping to break down/recycle remaining soil organic matter so that those components can ultimately be used again as a food source for plants – and the cycle repeats.
Decomposers make a much easier type of fungi to cultivate than mycorrhizal fungi because they fruit quickly (usually within 6 months), and all you need to grow them is either recently felled logs, wood chips, or other waste products like coffee grounds as a growth media (depending on the type of fungi).
Our Top 6 Recommended Gourmet & Medicinal Mushrooms To Grow In Your Garden
All the fungi on our list are:
- easy to grow decomposers,
- will produce loads of delicious mushrooms for years, and
- can be purchased as “seeds” on Amazon (affiliate links provided). Some of them even have mind-blowing (and brain building) medicinal properties. They also come with detailed growing instructions from the seller.
In no particular order, here are our top six recommendations of gourmet and medicinal mushrooms you can grow at home and/or in your garden:
1. Lion’s Mane
- Grows in/on: Sick or dying trees, cut hardwood logs, or specialized substrate in grow bags
- Tastes like: The taste and texture is remarkably similar to crab meat. Our favorite recipe to make with these is lion’s mane “crab cakes”, substituting chopped pieces of mushroom for crabmeat. We’ve served these to dinner guests and they thought they were eating actual crab meat.
- Medicinal properties: Perhaps the most potent of all the medicinal mushrooms in this list, lion’s mane and other Hericiums pack quite the punch. More and more studies are showing that they have very powerful, even regenerative, effects on brain cells, making them a potential treatment for dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and other degenerative brain disorders. Other proven medicinal benefits: they can reduce blood glucose levels (which can aid in diabetes control), and are packed full of anti-cancer compounds. Read more here.
- Native/Seasonal: Lion’s mane is native to North America, Asia, and Europe, and fruits in our area from late summer through late fall.
- Where to buy: plug spawn | kit for kids & beginners
2. Winecap, aka King Stropharia (Stropharia rugosoannulata)
- Grows in/on: Hardwood mulch/chips. We inoculated our mulched walking paths and mulched no-till garden beds with King Stropharia mushrooms over 5 years ago and continue to get mushrooms each year.
- Tastes like: Hard to describe, but we think they taste like a combination of white potatoes and red wine.
- Medicinal properties: We’re not aware of any research suggesting specific medicinal properties, however these are proven to be an incredible species for bioremediation, breaking down E. coli, coliforms, and other biological contaminants that commonly pollute waterways. For home bioremediation purposes, put King Stropharia in mulch around your chicken or duck coop, in a grey water filtration system, or in mulched beds between a neighboring property where you’re concerned about contaminated runoff coming on to your property or going into a creek.
- Native/Seasonal: Native to Europe and North America, they fruit in the spring and again in the fall (biggest flushes seem to be in spring).
- *We’ve written more about these amazing mushrooms here.
- Where to buy: spawn
3. Shiitake Mushrooms (Lentinula edodes)
- Grows in/on: Cut hardwood logs
- Tastes like: Mild, delicious, yet meaty; there’s a reason they are one of the most popular culinary mushrooms in the world.
- Medicinal properties: Stimulates immune system, lowers cholesterol
- Native/Seasonal: Native to Asia, there are different species that fruit at different times of the year – some in cool weather, some in warm weather.
- *We’ve written more about how to grow and eat shiitake mushrooms here, including a sunlight trick that allows you to drastically boost their Vitamin D levels.
- Where to buy: plug spawn | 12″ pre-inoculated log
4. Maitake Mushrooms, aka Hen of the Woods (Grifola frondosa)
- Grows in/on: Sick or dying tree bases/roots; cut hardwood logs; bags of sterilized growth media
- Tastes like: Considered one of the most valued culinary mushrooms in the world, its taste is hard to describe; mild yet delicious. We love adding it into soups or using it in our soup stocks.
- Medicinal properties: Stimulates both the innate and adaptive immune system, lowers blood sugar (good for diabetes), and inhibits cancer cell growth – read more here.
- Native/Seasonal: Native to Japan and North America, it fruits in the late summer through fall in our area
- Where to buy: plug spawn
5. Oyster Mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus)
- Grows in/on: Cut logs, dead or dying trees
- Tastes like: The name “oyster mushroom” refers to the way it looks, not what it tastes like. The flavor varies by subspecies, but does have a somewhat mild seafood flavor, akin to scallops.
- Medicinal properties: Lowers cholesterol
- Native/Seasonal: Different subspecies grow in different seasons; our native winter oyster mushrooms fruit throughout the fall and winter here, but other types fruit in the spring and summer.
- Where to buy: plug spawn | grow kit
6. Chicken of the Woods (Laetiporus species)
- Grows in/on: Dead or dying trees, stumps, roots or cut hardwood logs.
- Tastes like: As the name implies, these high protein mushrooms actually taste exactly like chicken and even have the same texture as chicken. We once had friends over and served “chicken fingers.” At the end of the meal when we told them they’d eaten mushrooms, not actual chicken, they couldn’t believe it!
- Medicinal properties: A quick google scholar search will show you a wide range of studies reporting positive medicinal effects including inhibition of gram-positive bacteria and Candida, diabetes prevention/control, and inhibition of HIV-1 reverse transcriptase.
- Native/Seasonal: There are at least 6 different species referred to as ‘chicken of the woods’. As we’ve written about here, our personal favorite is Laetiporus cincinnatus, but all species are good if you harvest them when they’re young and tender. The tips offer the most tender sections; they tend to get a little more tough back towards the stem as they get older.
- Where to buy: plug spawn
Whether you want to grow really good food, really good medicine, or a really clean environment, we hope you’ll decide to incorporate fungi into your garden!
Last thing: if you want to get serious about your mushroom geekery, we’d highly recommend you get this 5-star rated book written by our friend Tradd Cotter, the Yoda of fungi: Organic Mushroom Farming and Mycoremediation: Simple to Advanced and Experimental Techniques for Indoor and Outdoor Cultivation.
Warning: Be cautious when trying new foods for the first time, especially if you’re prone to food allergies. A small percentage of people are allergic to mushrooms, just like some people are allergic to eggs, nuts, etc.. It’s best to only try a small portion the first time trying a new food until you know how your body will react. Also, as mentioned previously, NEVER eat a mushroom that you’re not 100% certain you’ve correctly identified. There are lots of wild/native mushrooms that can kill you or make you very ill.