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Indiana mushroom expert visits Better World Books for signing

Stephen Russell, the head of the Hoosier Mushroom Society, says he doesn’t match many people’s expectations of what a fungi expert would look like.

“We do forays across the state throughout the year, and one of the common reactions I get when people meet me for the first time is, ‘I figured you’d be a 60-year-old guy with a beard,’” Russell said. “It’s a knowledge that not many people have. But it doesn’t take that long to attain that knowledge if you’re dedicated to it.”

He would know. Ten years ago, Russell was a college student with no particular interest in cooking or fungi. He says he learned the basics of mushroom cultivation almost entirely online.

“One of the main things that attracted me to it is just the overall lack of knowledge about the subject,” Russell said. “There are very few people who have a knowledge base on the subject. It was the aura of gaining a knowledge that not very many people have.”

Russell’s online hobby turned into the Hoosier Mushroom Company in 2009, and he has spent the last three years working on his recently released book, “The Essential Guide to Cultivating Mushrooms.”

He will be at Better World Books in Goshen this Friday at 6 p.m., signing copies of the book and giving a presentation on shiitake mushroom cultivation.

Fun with fungi

Russell says that cultivating mushrooms in your home or yard is a good idea for anyone who enjoys gardening, eating organic and locally produced foods or just having access to a wide variety of mushroom varieties.

Cultivators can start by purchasing cultures or pre-made kits, both of which are available through the Hoosier Mushroom Company website.

“If you go to a grocery store, they might have one or two species if you’re lucky,” Russell said. “Most stores will carry white buttons and portobellos, but if you want shiitakes or oysters or hen of the woods, not many grocery stores carry them. And one of the best ways to get them is to cultivated your own.”

According to Russell, growing your own mushrooms does not need to be time-intensive. But to get the best results, cultivators do need to carefully regulate the growing environment. For this reason, he suggests cultivating indoors if possible.

“The number one thing to keep in mind with mushroom cultivation is sterility. Everything needs to be very sterile in order to accomplish the process,” Russell said. “When you’re growing mushrooms, it’s a race between the mushrooms and anything else that can grow in the environment, like mold and bacteria. And you’ve got to get your mushrooms to colonize the substrate, the growing medium, before any other competitors take hold.”

“The Essential Guide to Cultivating Mushrooms” focuses on indoor cultivation and gives step-by-step instructions for all sizes of project, from a plate on the kitchen table to a set-up that fills an entire room.

The one thing you won’t find in the book? How to get a taste of Russell’s favorite mushroom, the black trumpet.

“Certain mushrooms have associations with the roots of trees in order to grow, and the black trumpets would be one of those varieties,” Russell said. “It’s a symbiotic relationship that we haven’t quite figured out how to cultivate in a controlled environment.”

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