Mushrooms have been a prized food since ancient times. Wild, edible mushrooms can be tracked down in woods by those who know where and when to look for them. These mushrooms are valued not just as a food, but also as a medicine. With a growing demand various mushroom cultivation methods have been explored, but they are not the easiest of crops. Now a Welsh company has developed a technique that produces a steady supply of popular varieties.
Fungi play a vital part in nature. In woodlands, heaths and fields they break down dead animals and plants into the food needed by living plants and animals. Many fungi grow around the roots of trees and other plants, extending their root system over a wide area. Others penetrate plants and protect them from disease. There are over 38,000 varieties of mushrooms around the world. Mushrooms and toadstools are important as food and shelter in the life cycles of many insects and other creatures. But as wild mushrooms become ever more popular the danger from over-picking continues – on some sites the survival of many of creatures dependent on mushrooms may be threatened.
Although mushrooms can be found in the wild, they will only grow under certain conditions. Over 200 species have been collected from the wild to be used medicinally, but to date only around 35 of these species have been grown on a commercial scale. To grow mushrooms commercially, the Welsh company Humungus Fungus has pioneered a unique mushroom growing system that uses old shipping containers. These containers are provided with all the necessary environmental qualities to make it possible to grow mushrooms all year round in locations where fresh, locally grown mushrooms are very hard to obtain.
Over nine years the company has developed a successful cultivation technology. The process starts from a single mushroom. A very small sample is taken from this mushroom, and then grown in agar on a plate to ensure a pure culture. Mycelium, mushroom spawn, will grow here and when enough have been produced they can be transferred onto the next food source – in this case grain.
Mycelium: The white threads or filamentous growth from which a mushroom or fungus is developed; the so-called mushroom spawn.
The grain boosts the vigour of the mycelium, which grows all the way through the grain. It is then used as a carrier to inoculate the next growing medium. The process of selection and blending the growing medium (substrate) is crucial, as each type of mushroom prefers a different mixture to promote fruiting. Various types of wood-waste, such as sawdust and wood-chip, are mixed together. Growing mushrooms on wood-based substrates requires patience, respect and understanding of conditions that occur naturally, which trigger mushroom production.
Once the sawdust is mixed it is sterilised in special bags and then spawn is added and allowed to colonise the sawdust. When this process is complete, which can take 2-16 weeks depending on the species, the sawdust has formed into a solid block, which is commonly referred to as a fruiting block. Some mushrooms grow best in a mixture of sawdust and wood-chip, while others flourish better on whole logs.
This fruiting block is then transferred from the warm, stable incubation conditions into a growing room where careful environment conditions are established in order to produce mushrooms. There are very few mushrooms that can be grown alongside each other in similar conditions. This system of mushroom production relies on care, sensitivity and water – no chemicals are used at all.
The Chinese and Japanese have used mushrooms as a nutritional medical therapy for thousands of years. They believe that nurturing a healthy immune system is the best way to combat many modern-day ailments, and use mushrooms to treat cancer and many other immune-related illnesses as they contain natural immuno-enhancers.
Mushrooms are an ideal food. They
- contain almost no fat, sugar or salt;
- are a valuable source of dietary fibre;
- contain easily absorbed, high quality vegetable protein;
- are a good source of the B vitamins – niacin, riboflavin, thiamin, folate, vitamin B6, biotin and pantothenic acid which may help to relieve stress, depression and fatigue;
- are rich in essential minerals such as calcium, potassium, phosphorus, iron, selenium, copper and zinc.
In recent decades scientific and medical studies have been carried out which demonstrated the unique health-enhancing properties of compounds extracted from a range of medicinal mushrooms. Extensive research has been carried out to assess the efficacy of the anti-cancer properties of mushrooms such as polysaccharides that inhibit the growth of cancer tumours. Mushrooms have been known to cure intestinal and stomach ulcers if eaten regularly, and are used to treat skin diseases, especially those of fungal origin. Other benefits are in the reduction of high blood pressure and cholesterol, and as a kidney, liver and nerve tonic.
From the mushroom harvest, Humungus Fungus processes extracts to meet these medicinal needs, under the brand name of Fruiting Bodies.
The popularity of edible mushrooms is spreading, in part due to the enthusiasm of top chefs like Raymond Blanc. He asked Humungus Fungus to help set up the first wild mushroom garden in Great Britain to supply his restaurant. The garden, known as ‘La vallée de champignons du Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons’ (The valley of mushrooms at the House of Four Seasons), will be planted with more than twenty species of native and exotic species of gourmet mushrooms.
Glasu, a Europe funded programme in Powys, Wales, provides support for businesses developing sustainable products or methods based on natural materials. They are providing financial assistance to the Humungus Fungus Project to help three people to establish a mushroom growing co-operative in Powys. These people will be aiming to market their fresh and processed mushrooms within the county.
ADAS, the UK’s largest provider of environmental and rural solutions, has been responsible for setting up trials in Wales using wood-chip as bedding for cattle and sheep that are fed indoors. The chip is kept in place until compost has formed and then removed from the sheds for further processing. The Humungus Fungus Project has been commissioned to test the suitability of the composted chip for mushroom production and aims to trial it to test its suitability for certain mushroom species.
Humungus Fungus is a sustainable mushroom business that not only ensures the woodlands of South Wales are properly managed but may also improve the health of many people.
Warning: If picking mushrooms in the wild it is important to be aware that some mushrooms are poisonous. Wild mushrooms should not be eaten unless a responsible person recognises them as safe, as there are no antidotes for poisonous mushrooms.
Humungus Fungus www.humungus-fungus.co.uk
Fruiting Bodies www.fruiting-bodies.co.uk
Association of British Fungus Groups www.abfg.org
English Nature www.gov.uk/government/organisations/natural-england
Fungi Perfecti www.fungi.com
Medicinal mushrooms: their therapeutic properties and current medical usage with special emphasis on cancer treatments. John E. Smith, Neil J. Rowan, Richard Sullivan. Cancer Research UK, 2002
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