By Glenn Walker
Maitake, the dancing mushroom, so called because legend says it was so rare that one who found it danced with joy, has only recently become domesticated. Also called Hen-of-the-Woods or Sheep’s Head by North American foragers, signorina by Italian Americans and Grifola frondosa by scientists, this mushroom has long been celebrated for both its culinary appeal and reported medicinal qualities.
According to our current understanding of the fossil record, fungi have existed on earth as long as 438 million years. By 286 to 320 million years ago, basidiomycetes and ascomycetes, the groups of fungi that produce fruiting bodies, or mushrooms, had appeared. So when humans began to roam the savanna 6 to 10 million years ago, mushrooms had been around for quite some time and had probably already coevolved with some animals. Early civilizations of the Greeks, Egyptians, Romans, Chinese, and Mesoamericans appreciated mushrooms for food, medicine and religious ceremonies.
Identifying the exact origin of agriculture is problematic because the transition from hunter/gatherer to farming began thousands of years before the invention of writing, but is believed to have occurred from 10,000-20,000 years ago. By comparison, mushroom cultivation is much more recent. The first recorded accounts of mushroom cultivation are of Wood Ear (Auricularia auricular) cultivated on wood logs in China around 600 A. D., followed by Enoki (Flammulina velutipes – A. D. 800) and Shiitake (Lentinula edodes – A. D. 1000), both also cultivated by the wood log method. Mushroom cultivation technology advanced significantly when the button mushroom (Agaricus bisporus) was cultivated on horse manure and other composted substrates. So, by comparison to other agricultural developments, mushroom cultivation is much more recent than the cultivation of plants and domestication of animals. Hen of the woods is one of the most recent additions to the list of mushroom species that humans have cultivated. The number of cultivated mushroom species has increased dramatically during the 1980s and 1990s along with the increase in worldwide mushroom production, from 0.9 million tons in 1975 to 6.1 million tons in 1997, though the number of species available to the general public is still just a few. Grifola frondosa is one of the few newly available mushrooms.
Grifola frondosa has only been artificially cultivated since the mid-1980’s in Japan. Mass production followed about 5 years later. By 1999 Japanese cultivators produced nearly 40,000 metric tons and in 2001 China produced 14,600 metric tons. Annual production in China and Japan has steadily increased due to the popularity of this mushroom. Part of the reason for the relative delay in the onset of human cultivation of this mushroom stems from its biology. Grifola frondosa grows at the base of large oak trees, emanating from the center of the trunk or from large rotting roots, rather than from logs, like wood ear, shiitake and enoki. So it was not easily cultivated by the log method, resulting in the delay in its domestication. An outdoor bed method was developed, but it was the revolution of artificial mushroom cultivation on enriched sawdust that allowed maitake to join the ranks of widely cultivated mushrooms.
To make shiitake available year round and to speed the time to fruiting, the plastic bag method using enriched sawdust was developed in the early 1970s. This was effective and now even the American consumer is accustomed having the option to purchase fresh shiitake at will during any routine grocery store visit. It wasn’t until a slightly modified technique of shiitake bag cultivation was adapted to maitake that maitake became more available at any time of year. Even more recent is the development of strains that can be cultivated in plastic bottles. The advantage of cultivating mushrooms in bottles is the availability of mechanization that makes the method less labor intensive and more cost effective. Also, since the bottle size is usually smaller than bags that are used to cultivate mushrooms, the result is a beautiful little retail-sized mushroom cluster. The introduction to the US market of maitake grown by this method has only occurred in the past 5 years by pioneering companies like Gourmet Mushrooms Inc. producing Mycopia brand retail-sized maitake.
The history of maitake cultivation is clearly in its infancy and those of us who are cultivating, purchasing and eating these first available cultivated maitake are writing what will be called ‘the history of maitake’ by future humans. So please go find your local retailer and become a participant in this exciting emerging culture.