Leelanau News and Events

Do You Know Leelanau's Mushroom Man?

By Emily Tyra | Oct. 13, 2021

Jim Moses and Linda Grigg of Maple City met and bought their Burdickville Road farm, Forest Garden Organic Farm, the winter of 1985 with the intention of cultivating shiitake mushrooms. In addition to being one of the oldest organic vegetable farms in the county, they’ve harvested a rich crop of shiitakes for decades, all cultivated on hardwood from their surrounding forestland.

Though they no longer sell shiitakes commercially, they keep a restaurant route in the county where Moses sells wild-foraged hen of the woods and other fungi to local chefs. Now, with several mycology experiments happening on the farm, Moses says they are looking at “the possibility of cultivating medicinal mushrooms. When you go to the gatherings of national mushroom organizations, some people are what are called ‘eaters,’ whose primary connection with mushrooms is ‘can you eat them?’ and there is also a really growing interest in medicinals, and we’re only just coming to realize how important they are.”

The couple has dedicated much of their lives to cultivating, hunting, and teaching others how to find the fungus; Moses is one of the first foragers to receive Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development’s certification to sell wild mushrooms

Fungi fact: Though northern Michigan is renowned for morels in the spring, Moses says, “we could also be famous for the fall mushrooms as we get to know them better.” Truth is, you’ll find many more varieties in the fall forest, as mushrooms respond to cooling temps and rain, which are stimuli that cause them to fruit. 

Moses and Grigg teach extended ed classes through Northwest Michigan College, “focusing on the 24 species that we can legally sell in Michigan, and the genuinely deadly toxics.”

Classes are full for this fall, so the Leelanau Ticker asked Moses for a glimpse into the wild world of Leelanau mushrooms, and what you’ll find if you step into the forest right now.

What’s a beautiful fall mushroom with a lot of character? This fall has been a very good year for chicken of the woods. They grow on dead and dying trees and are quite bright in color — orange and yellows. If you catch them young, they are really wonderful to eat. The joke is always everything ‘tastes like chicken’ but here it is about the texture of the mushroom when you prepare it.

How about cool or curious-looking fungi — not to eat, but that can be ID'd on a walk in the woods? There are a couple of large groups in the fall that are not considered to be edible but are quite noticeable and colorful. Russula mushrooms that are accented with reds, greens and purples, another group are called the waxy caps that look very much like they are crafted out of wax.

What is the relationship between mushrooms and the forest? Well, it’s literally all connected. And it’s looking increasingly like fungi are some of the oldest, most diverse organisms on the planet. It’s only been in the last 60 years we stopped arguing that if they were plants or animals — and realized they weren’t either one. The idea that they are connected to almost every plant on earth by its roots was discovered by a German botanist in the late 1800s; no one believed him. And now we know not only that they are connected to every tree but also connect groups of trees, in multiple overlying networks, and the fungi seem to regulate any number of processes. And more and more they are also looking at the role fungi plays in our own gut. But we still know very little about them.

So when you see those yellow or red caps it’s just the tip of the iceberg? The thing we search for in the woods is the fruit of a much larger organism that’s either in the ground or in large chunks of wood. It’s the fruit. It’s like seeing the apple and the apple tree is invisible to you.

Most amazing feat of fungi? We know fungi can encounter a novel substrate that they’ve never eaten and developed the enzymes to eat it, including plastic. That has tremendous consequences for recycling.

Any cautionary tales about mushrooms? I like to protect people with lines like ‘no mushroom is poisonous…until you eat it.’ I try to be really honest: although the number of mushrooms that are deadly poisonous are few in number, they are extremely bad poisons. And rules of thumb are not reliable. There was recently an Afghan family evacuated from Kabul to Poland who lost two of their sons, using rules of thumb that they had used in their country. They thought the mushrooms they found were safe and ate them. And not far away from here, there was a group of people about to eat a mushroom that was very abundant here this summer, the chanterelle. Luckily one person was more cautious and happened to go on their phone and found there is lookalike, whose tell was it glows in the dark — the common name is the jack-o’-lantern. What they were about to eat glowed.

The interconnectivity between mushrooms and trees sounds almost magical: Scientist Suzanne Simard is hot right now, and she’s good. She does TedTalks on the “Wood Wide Web,” or how trees talk to one another. Her view is plant centric. As mycologists, we think she’s got it slightly wrong: it’s the fungi that are regulating who gets what. There was a study at [Michigan Tech] in Houghton-Hancock that showed there are literally dozens of different fungi attached to certain pine trees and there is some mechanism that decides ‘you get to fruit this year, you need to wait.’ There is a whole forest economy. 

What's on your mycologist wish list for Leelanau? There was an important Michigan mycologist, Nancy Smith Weber, who taught for five or six years at the Leelanau School. With her students she produced a list of the fungi found in the forests in Leelanau in the early 80s. I think someone should do that again now, to compare.

Pictured: Jim Moses at the Maple City farm he owns with wife Linda Grigg, with  cultivated mushrooms in foreground.

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