We haven’t always been able to purchase mushrooms at our local grocery stores. Humans have eaten wild mushrooms for thousands of years, but we haven’t been able to cultivate more than a fraction of those mushroom species until quite recently. Several millennia after mushrooms first started being grown for personal use, they are finally making their way to grocery store shelves.
Harvesting Wild Mushrooms
As far back as hunter-gatherer times, humans have been gathering mushrooms to eat. Over 10,000 species of fungi produce these fruiting bodies, which means different species are found all over the world. Our ancestors ate mushrooms for their flavor and nutrients, but they were also used in ceremonies and to heal physical ailments.
Certain wild mushrooms have psychedelic properties and have been used in religious and spiritual rituals for thousands of years. In Europe, these mushrooms may have been consumed as many as 6,000 years ago. The indigenous peoples of the Americas are believed to have used psychedelic mushrooms in their rituals since at least 2,000 years ago.
Many species of mushrooms are thought to have similar health benefits: maintaining a healthy immune system, reducing inflammation, and increasing energy are among the most common claims. These treatments have persevered over millennia, and now modern science is backing up many of the claims.
Cultivation of Mushrooms
Mushrooms were not as easy to cultivate as vegetables and other plants, so many foragers were still on the hunt for wild mushrooms long after they had started farming. However, some mushrooms have been cultivated for centuries, usually for their medicinal properties. The Chinese cultured Shiitake about 800 years ago. It was viewed as a medicinal mushroom due to its supposed immune-boosting properties. Another species called “ear fungus” has been grown for much longer, as far back as 300 BC.
In Europe, cultivation of wild mushroom species was first recorded much later, in the 1600s. Growers in Paris grew a species known as Agaricus bisporus in fields for 160 years before realizing these mushrooms were happy underground, in caves, excavated tunnels, and quarries. This underground cultivation method has persisted into the modern era. English growers saw France’s success with mushroom cultivation and were drawn to the same species because it required little investment and maintenance.
By 1865, the United States began cultivating its own mushrooms for commercial sale. The mushrooms grown in Europe and the United States are the button mushrooms we often see in grocery stores. These mushrooms and their two genetic variants, Portobello and Crimini, are some of the most common offerings. That means that in many large chain grocery stores, all the mushrooms sold are actually the same species. We’re doing our part to bring more variety to consumers by growing more than a dozen different species of mushrooms!
The Most Elusive Mushrooms
Two beloved types of mushrooms have yet to be successfully cultivated for widespread production: Morels and Truffles. Both have been collected and enjoyed for centuries, but they are difficult to find in the wild and nearly impossible to grow commercially.
Truffles cannot technically be cultivated because they must form a symbiotic relationship with the roots of oak trees in order to fruit. However, some people have chosen to grow truffles in a designated area by starting an oak tree plantation. Still, the truffles take between five and ten years to develop. It is much more common for truffle-lovers to forage these gourmet mushrooms.
Morels are one of the most sought-after mushroom varieties. Many attempts have been made to cultivate the most popular species, Morchella esculenta, and a few people have seen limited success. However, these small successes have never been duplicated on a large scale. Morel lovers must continue to head out into the forests to find these mushrooms.