10/10/22: Autumnal anecdotes

This week, I'm taking a break from our regularly scheduled programming to take you on a mystical tour through forests of fungi and prairies of amaranth. One, a kingdom of life that covered Earth's terrestrial landscapes long before we were even a thought in evolution's wildest dreams. The other, a much younger group of organisms that have greatly impacted human civilizations throughout history, despite their lack of chitin.

Parable of the mycophile

As promised, I'm here to deliver on the beginnings of mushroom cultivation. It's hard to find a satisfactory starting point when considering the fungal history of our planet. Do I initiate this one-sided conversation by recapping fungi's grand leap to land around 1,300 million years ago? Would it be better to skip ahead to the 19,000 year old fossil remains I mentioned in last week's post? You know, the oldest evidence of humans eating mushrooms? I'm sure you couldn't forget the charming image of one of our unkempt ancestors with a big ol' mushroom spore between their front teeth. This is a joke, of course. A spore wouldn't stick out like a piece of spinach, and what do I know, our ancestors could have dressed quite dapperly in their time. Since no one is here to suggest an ideal beginning to our mushroom story, or to gently notify me (via quiet sigh and/or quick eye roll) that my tangents can become a little exhausting, I will choose the shiitake as our fungal guide and jump back a thousand years to the origins of its cultivation in China. Before moving on, explore the history of mushrooms, humans, and science, by watching this animated short film of English author Neil Gaiman's poem "The Mushroom Hunters."

Our adventure begins in 1000 A.D. with the first fungiculturist, Wu San Kwung, in the forests of China’s Zhejiang Province. Kwung happened across felled logs that were covered with shiitake mushrooms, and so began the practice of cultivating shiitakes that I described in last week's post. Statues of Wu San Kwung remain in Zhejiang today, commemorating the legend of the first known fungi farmer.

Shiitake (Lentinula edodes), was highly prized not only for its strong aroma and umami flavor, but also for its medicinal properties. This mushroom would become a staple in traditional Chinese medicine, and its use spread throughout Asia, eventually reaching Japan around the 1500's. As of now, it holds the title of the second-most cultivated mushroom in the world.

Lexikon Blogion

Chitin: compound found in the cell walls of fungi and arthropods (insects and crustaceans), used for structure and protection.

Mycophile: a mushroom loving being.

Fungiculture: cultivation of mushrooms (macrofungi) and yeast (microfungi).

Shiitake: Japanese name for L. edodes. Refers to the Japanese chinquapin or shii tree, a species within the beech and oak family that the mushrooms are frequently associated with; and take, the Japanese term for mushroom.

The great Wu San Kwung. Check out the source for this image to see how scientists are tracing the shiitake's evolutionary history through DNA and RNA sequencing.

Our second guide on this fungal foray is a mushroom of many names, the top dog in global fungiculture, the button/common/crimini/baby bella/portobella mushroom (Agaricus bisporus). Talk about an identity crisis, the etymology and taxonomy of this fungi has been disputed among scientists for decades, but that's a story for another blog. Far behind the shiitake, the commercial cultivation of A. bisporus wasn't documented until the early 1700's in France, but small scale growing methods were thought to occur around 1650. For the first century and a half, farmers grew the button mushrooms in open fields. This method often led to low yields because of contamination, and the French moved their operation underground into caves. It sounds like these fungi farmers were on some top-secret mycelial mission.

By the 1860's, the U.S. had seen the success of France's mushroom industry and wanted their own seat at the table. Early cultivation practices picked up in the States, but it wasn't long before France innovated the industry once again with the production of a pure mushroom culture at the Pasteur Institute in Paris. This allowed farmers to return to the open fields and grow their crop on composted horse manure without worries of contamination interfering with their yields. News of pasteurized culture methods got back to America, and the mushroom industry took off. But wait, one last interesting A. bisporus fact that you can tell your friends about: the white color of the common mushroom originally wasn't that common at all! Historically, the button mushroom was light brown. The white variety wasn't popularized until 1925 when self-taught mycologist and farmer, Louis Ferdinand Lambert of Coatesville, Pennsylvania, found a peculiar white button amidst a sea of brown. All the creamy colored buttons you see in grocery stores today are due to Louis's chance encounter with that first mutated mushroom (the same can be said for many of our commercially cultivated apple and orange varieties).

Below you can see some of the mushrooms we harvested this week, and others that we gladly left alone. Can you ID them? Hint: you can get some help with the first six by looking back at last week's post.

The white coral looking fungus is Hericium americanum, or bear's head tooth fungus. It is closely related to the popular lion's mane species (Hericium erinaceus), both of which are edible and sought after for their taste and nutritional benefits. I can't say the same for our last two fungal friends. First up we have Phallus impudicus, the common stinkhorn. Its spores are spread by insects that are attracted to a putrid odor it gives off when reaching maturity. The bright yellow 'gi an unidentified Agaricus species. Next time I'll try to get an official ID, but the mosquitoes weren't showing me any mercy on this particular fall day and I had to get out of there quickly.

We will end our mushroom march down memory lane with a third and final guide, the versatile and delicious oyster mushroom (Pleurotus spp.). Compared to the previous two guides, the genus Pleurotus contains more species, many of which are cultivated for different purposes. Oysters are used as sources of dietary protein, gourmet delicacies, and for mycoremediation projects. The first species commercially cultivated was Pleurotus ostreatus, the pearl oyster.

Germany, needing food provisions during WWI, turned to the pearl oyster for its reliable yields. It wasn't decades later until the late 60's that the U.S. would begin commercial cultivation of this now globally available mushroom. Common methods include log inoculation and grow bags. Look back at last week's post for a review on the innovations that changed the mushroom cultivation game and stay on the look-out for a future post detailing the step-by-step process of sterile tissue culture/grow bag procedures. In the meantime, get your mushroom fix by reading Maria Popova's post on Beatrix Potter, detailing her early scientific discoveries and beautiful drawings on all things fungi.

Lexikon Blogion

Pleurotus: genus of gilled mushrooms containing over 200 species. From the Greek words pleura + oto, which translates to side-ear, this name was used to describe the growth habit of oyster mushrooms. They can often be found connected to trunks like an ear to a head.

Mycoremediation: a method of environmental restoration that uses a fungi's mycelium (the vegetative, thread-like part of the fungus) to clean up polluted areas. Mycelia excrete lots of strong enzymes that break down heavy metals and other pollutants.

Above you can see some of the most common Pleurotus spp. Image source.

All about Amaranthus

The beautiful plant you see below is a happy accident from some left-over floral arrangements at the arboretum. This particular species isn't native to our area here in Illinois, but we do have our very own native amaranth, such as the white amaranth (Amaranthus albus). Much like the oyster mushrooms mentioned previously, amaranths show impressive versatility not only within the diversity of the genus's morphological characteristics, but also in the various ways humans have used them throughout history. They are a cosmopolitan group of species, cultivated for their seeds, vegetation, and beauty. To add to their arsenal of employment options, they are also considered to be super weeds by many farmers because of their extended germination periods, fast growth, and resistance to herbicides.

Lexikon Blogion

Amaranth: genus containing 75 species of flowering annuals (few are short-lived perenials). Translated from the Greek word amarantos, a name meaning mythical, unfading flower. The suffix -anthos is also a Greek descriptor meaning flower. Also important to note is the Aztec term form amaranth: huauhtli.

Cosmopolitan: used to describe a specie's global distribution, i.e. a species can be found on all (or most) of the continents.

Germination period: the time it takes for a seed/spore to complete its dormancy stage and sprout.

This is a nonnative species of amaranth. Marvin and I collected the seeds (although they are often referred to as grains, they are technically seeds, similar to quinoa) of the white amaranth (not pictured here). These red ones needed a little extra time for their flower heads to dry out. We're returning to the site next week and I will let you know if we're able to harvest successfully, or if the birds beat us there.

Not only is the amaranth adaptive in its form and function, but also in its biogeographical range. As I mentioned earlier, it's globally endemic. Found on every continent except Antartica, this genus is deeply rooted into the fabric of many cultures and civilizations. Europe, Africa, and Asia are homes to around 15 native species. The Americas house a larger group of 60 natives. The history of the domestication, forced eradication, and resurgence of the amaranth tells a story of great loss and resilience.

The three most commonly cultivated species, red amaranth (A. cruentus), prince's feather (A. hypochondriacus), and love lies bleeding (A. caudatus) were all domesticated in the Americas as far back as 6,000 years ago. Red and prince's feather amaranth were plants used by the Aztecs and Maya in North and Central America. In South America, the Inca domesticated love lies bleeding. The traits indigenous groups were selecting for depended on the plant's intended use. Generally that involved choosing plants with weaker/smaller leaves, which allowed for easier harvesting of the seeds. Along with the high protein content delivered by the seeds, they also served as sacrificial offerings and celebratory dishes during religious ceremonies. I should mention that we are talking about large populations of people here and their dietary, religious, and cultural practices were likely diverse and nuanced. For instance, at the height of the Inca empire, there were 12 million inhabitants from over 100 different ethnic groups.

Above are two images from the Guardian article linked below. The first shows skulls made out of amaranth seed for Mexico's Dia de muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration. Following is a picture of Qachuu Aloom members harvesting amaranth. Pictures were taken by Carlos Tischler and Juan Carlos Lemus.

In the 16th century, Spanish conquistadors colonized the Americas, outlawing amaranth cultivation village by village. To control masses of people, and to break their spirit, you must first take away their food and their traditions. The loss of the amaranth not only forced Meso- and South American peoples to depend on their colonizers for food, but also broke the strong religious and spiritual ties once held together by the fibers of the unfading flower. A quality of both humans and nature that always seems to be dismissed by myopic power structures aiming to suppress and dominate, is resilience.

Seeds were secretly stashed in jars to make their great escape amongst hidden trade routes. Upon arrival to their destination, they were hidden under floorboards or stored safely underground, surrounded by the reliant walls of the Earth. Children watched as their grandparents tended to their own private gardens where amaranth was hidden amongst other tall shrubs. The plant itself, as stubborn as it is, continued to sprout in the middle of farmed fields. Who could have predicted that four centuries later, amidst all the 1970's hype surrounding Patty Hearst and station wagons with wood trim, amaranth seeds would make a come-back as the next "superfood."

I hope by now you consider amaranth to be a culture-shaping plant that's intrinsic value was appreciated by peoples long before it became the latest Trader Joe's ancient grain protein bar. If not, that's okay too! Any publicity is good publicity, right? I may not have the liberty to make that decision, but I think appreciating the utility and taste of any plant is a good place to start. As for me, I ate quinoa long before I learned about its history, and perhaps an introduction via taste buds is the optimal way to get people interested in the history of the plants (and fungi!) that sustain them. Check out the Gaurdian's excellent article on the indigenous women in North and Central America fighting to keep the traditions and knowledge of the amaranth alive. There are also many sustainable agriculture projects utilizing amaranth for its ability to grow in tough/dry conditions. I plan on addressing those global efforts, as well as our own culinary efforts involving amaranth "popcorn," in a future post.