The botanical name Pleurotus ostreatus may sound like an extra-terrestrial creature landed on planet earth, but, in fact, this edible fungus might be growing right in your neck of the woods. Commonly known as the oyster mushroom, this delicious foragable is also a species you can grow at home. Medicinal mushrooms, edible mushrooms, and toxic mushrooms can be a fascinating area of study and a powerful means of connecting to the mycelia web of ecosystems. Keep reading to learn more about this species and how to cultivate it in your home garden.
The scientific name Pleurotus ostreatus is derived from the ancient Greek word for “side ear” in reference to the way the fruiting bodies grow upon a substrate. “Ostre” means oyster – a reference to the more common name “oyster mushroom” – from the shell-like appearance of their fruit bodies. Another synonym for this fungus is Agaricus ostreatus Jacq.
In North America, from the months of April to October, you can find this pleurotus species growing in shelf-like clusters on trees. This type of growth pattern is called saprobic. They are light-brownish in color, with a brown cap. Usually, the cap is between 3-20 cm across. Their shape is similar to that of a kidney or a decorative fan. This mushroom has decurrent gills which are short and close together. They have irregular stipes, if they have them at all.
Fungi is separated into various ordres and phylum. Because of their gills, oysters are of the Agaricales order.
This species attacks and kills various nematodes and bacteria as well.
Identifying edible mushrooms in nature is no joke. One mistake can lead to violent illness or even death. If this sounds intimidating to you – good! It is important to adopt a philosophy of humility as you embark upon a mushroom quest.
If available to you, begin with foraging walks with an expert in your area. This will not only build confidence in identifying different species such as p. ostreatus, but you will most likely pick up on how different species within the ecosystem interact and what sort of practices are sustainable, specific to where you live. Often, there are also region-specific social media groups entirely dedicated to mushroom foraging. This can be a great way to ask questions and fill out your developing knowledge on the subject. People probably won’t share their precious foraging sites with a stranger on the internet, but you’ll be connected to folks with a similar passion, and who knows where that might lead.
For oyster mushrooms specifically, keep an eye out on the trees. They mostly grow on dead and alive hardwood trees, but you can occasionally find them growing on conifers as well – causing a white rot.
As you branch out on your own, you’ll want to collect field guides for mushroom identification. Many are pocket-sized, and as you go, it’s important to cross-reference different sources. Additionally, if you have your phone in your pocket, you can even compare what you find and identify through memory and ID guides with google images for an extra layer of security.
Other pleurotus species are easy to confuse with p. ostreatus. Pleurotus pulmonarius (p. pulmonarius) and Pleurotus populinus (found on aspen and cottonwood trees) are two particularly closely related look-alikes.
Once you’ve used your wits, your ID guides, and maybe various search engines to identify that you have indeed found a cluster of oyster mushrooms, you’ll want to follow up with one more step to be absolutely certain that you’re correct in your identification: spore prints.
This part isn’t hard: simply place a cap of the mushroom on a piece of paper or black Tupperware, for instance. The spores will fall from the cap and leave a print. In the case of oyster mushrooms, the print should be a whitish lilac color.
You can’t be too cautious in the world of mushroom identification. And in this instance, oyster mushrooms do have some unfavorable look-a-likes. For example, Lentinellus ursinus is very similar in appearance. While this Lentinus species isn’t known to be toxic, it sure doesn’t taste good according to experts in the field. Within foraging circles, there is the legend that even raccoons spit out this nasty-tasting fungus. Different from the oyster mushroom, L. ursinus has saw-toothed gills – this is a great way to distinguish the two. Knowing these small traits makes a big difference and allows you to focus in on foraging species with a higher score on the edibility scale.
Mushroom cultivation may be slightly more nuanced than scattering wildflower seeds in the back garden, but there’s no need to be deterred. With the right planning, environment, and ingredients you can grow these fungi right at home. This is an alternative that many people find satisfying in contrast to buying expensive, plastic-wrapped packages at the store, or those who struggle in finding the time and land to forage sustainably.
Oyster mushrooms grow fast and voluptuously – a cash crop of sorts. This step-by-step guide is adapted from the Grocycle Mushroom Farm and supplemented by other DIY mushroom farmers who have shared their processes online.
First, gather the necessary materials: Pleurotus ostreatus spawn and straw for sure, possibly sawdust pellets and coffee grounds if you have that available as well. Mix these ingredients together and put them in a plastic bag, tying the bag at the top.
Next is the incubation stage. The mycelium of the spawn will colonize the mixture within the bag. This can be an incredibly interesting visual process to observe, as layers will separate over the course of three weeks.
Finally, there is the fruiting stage. You want to simulate an autumn season. Find an area where you are able to provide light, moisture, and fresh air. The bodies grow quickly – poking out of the bag’s plastic layer and are ready to harvest in 8-10 days. Simply twist the bodies off the bags and store, sell, or dry them for use to your heart’s delight.
Other varieties of mushrooms do well in inoculated logs – such as lion’s mane, reishi, and shiitake. But using this straw-bag method is a popular and easy method for growing oyster mushrooms at home.
The best part? By creating the ideal conditions for growth, you can grow and harvest mushrooms year-round.
There’s a lot of reasons to get into propagating mushrooms. For instance, it can be a sustainable alternative to over-foraging. It’s a hobby that could become quite lucrative. Watching the process unfold can cultivate a sense of wonder and connectedness to the natural world.
Whatever your reasons – best of luck as you embark on your Pleurotus ostreatus quest, however you choose to go about it!
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