Growing Wine Cap Mushrooms
You never know what goodies you’re going to come across while roaming the Zimmerstead’s edible yarden. While clearing out the remnants of my summer vegetable garden in preparation for my winter garden, I walked by the mulch where I had laid out some Wine Cap Stropharia spawn earlier this spring and lo and behold, mushrooms!
It’s so easy to grow these babies I almost feel silly blogging about them, but I wouldn’t have known about them if my other mycophiles hadn’t passed the info along to me.
These mushrooms get their name from the burgundy, red wine color of the younger caps. They also have a nutty, almost wine-like flavor. Some people call them King Stropharia due to the crown that grows around the stalk near the cap (not always visible on older mushrooms). Others call them Godzilla Mushrooms due to the immense size they can grow to. You can grow Wine Caps in straw or wood mulch. All you need to do is order some sawdust spawn from a catalog like Field and Forest (http://www.fieldforest.net/Wine-Cap/products/16/), set some wood chips out in the spring, sprinkle enough spawn to cover as much of the surface area of the wood chips as possible (one 5.5 lb. bag will cover 50 sq. ft.), cover with more wood chips and ignore until fall. If you have a particularly dry summer it doesn’t hurt to water them, but this really is practically a completely hands-off project other than growing and harvesting.
Another option is to take gardening straw, soak it in water overnight, set it out to dry and then proceed the same as with wood chips. After harvesting in the fall, spread more straw or wood chips over your initial patch, let it sit through the winter, spread some more spawn on the new layer in spring, cover that layer and proceed ad infinitum.
Unlike most other mushrooms, Wine Cap can handle a bit of sun. A good way to save some space and keep your garden happy is grow wood chips in mulch between garden rows. You can also grow them under fruit trees, blueberry bushes, etc. If planting in straw, be careful when walking in the straw during harvest season (early to late fall). If you notice a bulge in the straw, it’s likely to be some mushrooms growing. I grew mine this year in some mulch I spread in a forested area of my yarden. I occasionally trimmed back the undergrowth that was threatening to take over the mulch but didn’t pay that much attention to it. I noticed several of the mushrooms were hiding, so my daughter and I did some Easter-egg hunting to ensure we found them all.
Fall is also a good time of the year to hunt for wild Wine Caps. Be sure to take the standard precautions when wild mushroom hunting. Never even nibble on a mushroom you can’t identify 100%, carefully cut the mushroom at its base to ensure you don’t harm the complex web of mycelium that will continue to produce mushrooms (which are actually the fruit of a larger interconnected set of organisms), and respect private land and protected resources.
Although it’s easy to tell the difference if you know what to look for, one of the most deadly mushrooms out there, Deathcap, looks similar to Wine Cap. Deathcap has a similar shape, but has different coloring than Wine Cap, particularly in the gills and spore print (small specks on the stem directly under the gills). Deathcap has white gills and spore print while Wine Cap’s are charcoal-colored, sometimes closer to lilac. See here for a more detailed identification guide: http://americanmushrooms.com/deathcap.htm
Wine Caps are also carnivorous. Don’t worry – they won’t jump up and bite you, although sometimes I could swear I hear one whisper "Feed me, Yeti!" They actually feed on nematodes (http://www.organicgardening.com/learn-and-grow/nematodes). Nematodes are a type of microscopic parasite. There are thousands of them and not all are harmful, but some species do feed on plants - an even better reason to plant them between garden rows. For the minimal amount I grew (I split a 5.5 lb. bag with two other people), I got a nice little harvest. Note I left a few of the smaller ones to grow some more.
Wine caps are tasty in any dish in which you would use mushrooms. I like to brush oil on the older ones and lightly grill them. Although at their prime when the cap is full open and hasn’t started turning downward, with light charcoal or lilac gills, they can also be tasty to eat young before the caps have fully opened. The young ones even have stems that are tender enough to eat. To preserve wine cap or similar edible mushrooms, you can either dehydrate them or cook them lightly in olive oil, garlic, and any desired savory flavorings. Put them in plastic or glass containers in the freezer and add them to winter dishes. They're best within 3-4 months.
Keep on ‘shrooming!