Shiitakes are a decomposing fungus native to China and other parts of Asia. The Japanese syllable Shii refers to the type of host tree, no one is sure, perhaps oak or a tree in the same family as birch in America. Take means the fruit of the mushroom.
Shiitakes are more like animals than plants. They have behaviors and we believe they're social. They like Doug, they dislike crabby people and negative emotional environments (as plants can wilt when their owners argue). They're not fond of cigarette smoke and may balk in their fruiting around smokers. Some growers swear their shiitakes like classical music and rock and roll. Shiitake logs fruit more generously when they are with another log or in a group of logs. They love the negative ions from rain and they respond to thunder and lightning. Some growers use flashing lights, play thunderstorm music to simulate storms and tap their logs with hammers or drop them a foot or more to simulate the fall of the log in the wild.
We toured the eastern US visiting shiitake farms and learned - there is no Right Way to grow shiitakes. Each grower had a different system, and we saw new methods of inoculation. It didn't make any difference - everyone was getting shiitakes, on 2,000 logs or 100,000 logs, using compressor-cooled soaking tanks and fork lifts, lawn sprinklers or overhead sprayers, even garden hoses with punched-in holes. We saw home-made greenhouses, converted hog farms and chicken houses, elaborate indoor operations and thousands of logs cultivated bare naked outdoors, shaded by trees.
DO SHIITAKES GROW WILD? Not in the US, although they will spread from our outdoor logs into firewood, but yielding only a 'shroom or two. They're native to Asia.
In a natural forest, shiitake spores are released from fruiting mushrooms in spring or autumn. They float through the air, traveling long distances and settle in a silvery dust on live tree limbs and fallen limbs. The immune system of a live tree will overcome the shiitake spores, but on a dead limb, they take hold and work their way into the cambium layer. They colonize that section of wood, devouring cellulose and building a network throughout the dead part of the tree. The next year, a storm comes, breaks the limb and it crashes to the ground, startling the shiitake awake. With rain and temperatures in the 70s during the day and in the 50s at night, five or six shiitakes may "bloom" on the log. Today, as in ancient China, pickers come by the hundreds. The Chinese only eat shiitake dried. The same process is now operating in the eastern US, where Korean producers lease forested lands for shade to protect thousands of logs and harvest in spring and fall.
HISTORY OF SHIITAKE CULTIVATION. In the 1930s the Japanese developed a cultivation method using saw cuts, and eventually developed the methods we use now, drilling holes in cut wood, inoculating with shiitake spawn, incubating the logs until they are colonized, then harvesting during the spring and autumn rainy seasons.
Shiitake cultivation was kept out of the US because the edible and medicinal Lentinula edodes was confused with another strain of Lentinula, a fungus that attacks railroad ties. Finally in the 1970s, it was all straightened out, and Americans started cultivating shiitakes and growing them bigger, faster, and better.
A new, faster, easier method of production involved inoculating sterilized sawdust blocks. It's popular with commercial growers because they can grow many times the amount of shiitakes in the same time it takes to grow on logs and increase their profits tenfold and more. Asian growers jumped in with both feet. But the mushrooms weren't as meaty, tasty, and as it turned out, not as supportive to optimal health. In Asia, sawdust-grown shiitakes sell for $2-$3 a pound, log-grown shiitakes for $40-80 a pound. Most Americans, and many chefs, don't know the difference until they see, handle, and taste shiitakes grown on logs.
Donko shiitakes, mushrooms that dry out faster on the surface than on the inside, have white slits, or splits, in the dark brown caps. Asians consider donko shiitake to be a powerful aphrodisiac.
For centuries the Chinese picked shiitakes wild and dried them. The Japanese learned to cultivate them. They placed fresh mushrooms on a dead log and let it self-inoculate. We heard the story that in olden days in Japan, there were shiitake wars to plunder and steal inoculated logs. We heard that it used to be the custom, when a boy child was born, to inoculate a 20-foot long log, about 4 feet in diameter. It took around 20 years for that log to colonize. So when the boy turned 21, and ready to seek his fortune in the world, his fortune awaited him in his back yard. This may be folklore, as we've found no historical proof.
Shiitake ~ the Mushroom of Love
While the healing power of shiitakes is well documented and ongoing, especially for applications in cancer treatment, the aphrodisiac power of shiitakes is a matter of ages-old legend. "Donko" shiitake are believed to be a powerful aphrodisiac. A "donko" shiitake has white streak marks on the cap where the skin has dried, but the body of the mushroom has continued to expand, splitting the skin. The splits and streaks create beautiful designs on the caps. Where even sawdust-grown shiitakes may sell for $20 a pound or more in the US and log-grown shiitakes sell for $40 a pound and up in Asia, "donkos" may sell for $40 a pound in the US and $80-$100 or more in the Orient.