Mushrooms on a Mission

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Mushrooms are a strange, complex, and often delicious gift from nature. Fleeting and particular, foraging for them in the wild serves as a great way to get the family engaged in an outdoor treasure hunt. But there’s another way to access these tasty morsels—and help out an important cause along the way.

Here in Virginia, many delectable and highly prized mushroom varieties grow right under the forest canopy. There are over a thousand varieties of edible mushrooms out there. But, before we go any further, it is important to note that many mushrooms are not edible (most, even), and are in fact very dangerous. NEVER eat a wild mushroom unless you are absolutely certain that it is safe for consumption.

With that out of the way, let’s get down to business. When and where can you find these edible wild mushrooms?

In Virginia, certain varieties of mushrooms can be found all year, but there are a few that seem to be most highly prized among hunters and connoisseurs. Mushrooms are a fungus and they tend to grow on decaying organic matter, like logs and leaf-littered forest floor, in damp areas or just after a rain. And while the fungus that produces the mushrooms is usually very large, healthy and active underground, the fruiting bodies that we eat don’t last long, so it’s important to get out there as soon as the rain stops, but before the air/ground dries out!

It may be a little late in the season for morels, but if you’re looking for this coveted mushroom, here are a few tips:
• Hunt when the air and soil temps are not too cool, but not too warm: about 60 – 70 degrees during the day, 50 degrees overnight.
• Wait until after a good rain storm or two, and look for an area of recently disturbed or burned forest.
• Morels love decaying yellow poplar, ash, elm, a nd oak. They’re also known to pop up around spicebush.
• And a great tip for ALL mushroom foraging: find a friend (or make a new one) with experience hunting these and other mushrooms! They can help you find good hunting grounds, and help you identify true morels.

Chanterelles are a different character. Unlike the morel, they love to emerge in warmer weather, and can be found all through the summer. Their yellow/orange color makes them easier to spot on the forest floor, and, like most mushrooms, they can be found in moist, shaded areas with lots of healthy organic matter. Fallen logs and leaf litter are good signs for finding chanterelles. A great place to spot these delectable mushrooms would be along creek beds and places where ephemeral streams form after showers. They tend to grow individually, or in small clusters, but where there’s one, there’s usually more. Look closely, though, and have your identification guide handy. Chanterelles have a poisonous look-alike called the jack-o-lantern. The biggest difference between the two is the gills on the underside of the mushroom head. The chanterelle has pale-colored false gills, which look more like wrinkles, whereas the jack-o-lantern mushroom has true, deep gills similar to the color of the mushroom head. The jack-o-lantern also grows in heavier clusters, and has a deeper orange color all over, whereas the chanterelle has a paler stem. Not to mention, the jack-o-lantern glows in the dark!

When you find your prize, it’s best to snip the mushroom at the stem rather than pull it from the roots. This way, the fungal system underground can continue to grow and produce more mushrooms. You’ll want to bring along a basket for collection, or something in which you can place the mushrooms so they can breathe and not crush one another.

But wild foraging isn’t the only way to enjoy these colorful culinary treats. We caught up with Bethshan McLeod, who along with her husband, James, serves as the director of Providence Veterans Farm and Mission Mushrooms in Concord, VA. Their non-profit has found a unique way to finance their critically important cause: mushrooms!

That’s right, the McLeods oversee an operation employing veterans who grow and sell top-quality mushrooms and mushroom grow kits. Their mission is to serve the families of service members who have experienced trauma during service. Military trauma tends to affect the entire household, and leads to high rates of divorce, mental health struggles, unemployment, and other problems regularly faced by these incredibly important members of our community. Mission Mushroom seeks to strengthen these families, and stop the spread of generational trauma so that service can continue in a healthy way, one mushroom at a time.

Their 90-acre farm offers four transitional homes for those in need, as well as opportunities for engagement, trauma healing, and mentoring. Bethshan said that mushrooms and farming are a natural fit for trauma recovery because of the intrinsic healing and calming qualities of gardening and agriculture. They also have two highly specialized mushroom growing facilities designed to grow specific mushroom varieties, particularly oysters and lion’s mane.

If you’ve been reading this as someone who doesn’t particularly care for mushrooms on their plate, you’re in good company with Bethshan! But she likes the ones they grow at Mission Mushroom because unlike most commercially grown mushrooms that are grown in manure outdoors, theirs are grown on a non-manure, non-chemical substrate in an indoor, controlled environment. They are never chemically treated or sprayed, and don’t even need to be washed before they’re cooked!

Mission Mushroom can be found at both the Downtown Lynchburg and Bedford farmers markets. They also have an online store offering a monthly subscription box! Every month, you’ll get a few pounds of mushrooms delivered to your door, and you’re helping out a really important cause in the process.

Mission Mushroom also offers an at-home grow kit. Visit their online store, choose the type of mushroom you’d like to grow, and have the kit delivered to your home. It’s a tiny version of their operation at Providence Veterans Farm, and you can grow about a pound to a pound and a half of your very own mushrooms. After the mushrooms are all gobbled up, Bethshan says the mycelium left over in the substrate makes excellent fertilizer! Just break up the grow bag, toss it into your garden,
and it’s a gift that keeps on giving.

Who knew the mighty mushroom could be the vehicle for inspiring healthy bodies and minds for warriors and their families right here in our community?

No matter how you come by them, if you’re looking for a fun new way to spice up your dinner plate, mushrooms are a great place to start.

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