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The Great Shiitake Experiment

I am a longtime fan of all Asian mushrooms and they have prominent place in my anti-inflammatory food pyramid, but the shiitake (Lentinula edodes) may be my favorite. Featuring a firm texture and a rich, umami taste, shiitakes are an integral, delicious part of Chinese, Japanese and Thai cuisines. They also offer unique health benefits: research indicates compounds in shiitakes may lower cholesterol, enhance immune function and reduce risk of several kinds of cancer.

With shiitakes – as with anything that grows – freshness matters. I’m also always looking for new gardening challenges (such as my quest to grow real wasabi). So in late July, 2011, at my summer home in British Columbia, Canada, three friends – Nori Fletcher, Charris Ford and Conrad Dombrowski – and I set out to create our own homegrown supply of shiitakes.

We began by securing 16 alder logs, with plans to get 15 more soon. Alders are weed trees here, and abundant. Just three days after they were cut (the logs have to be green) we took turns going through this sequence:

  • drilling holes, 40 to 50 per log, 5/16ths inch in diameter and 1-1/4 inches deep
  • pounding in plug spawn (provided by Paul Stamets)
  • waxing the plugs and ends of logs to prevent contamination by other fungi
  • stacking logs in a tree-shaded "rick" that is regularly sprayed by an irrigation head so that they won’t dry out

Next spring when it warms up, we’ll try to initiate fruiting by soaking the logs in water for 24 hours.  If no mushrooms result, we’ll let them sit until fall and try again. Growing shiitakes is not for the impatient. But the rewards should make it all worthwhile. Once logs begin to fruit, they can produce two flushes of mushrooms a year for up to seven years. Conrad recently got 50 pounds of shiitake from 20 logs that he prepared last year , so if all goes well, we’ll be abundantly supplied.

Whether you grow them yourself or buy from a quality supplier, here are several of my favorite shiitake mushroom recipes:

Andrew Weil, M.D.

See a slideshow: Growing Shiitake Mushrooms