Mushroom Cultivation…With A Twist!

Written by Steve Beukema

“Finally,” you say to yourself, exploring the various educational tabs on a website dedicated to psychedelic substances – “Finally a guide on how to grow them myself!”

Unfortunately, this article is not quite that, and yet it may contain information you were not even aware you wanted to know! As you are probably aware, the legality underlying the possession, sale, and transportation of psilocybin/psilocin-producing mushrooms is in a sad state of affairs. Cultivation of these mushroom species is even more unclear given that they occur naturally in many parts of the world. For example, in many regions the purchase of psilocybin spores or mushroom grow kits is not inherently illegal on its own because the materials and the spores themselves do not contain the actual psychoactive substance that the law prohibits (Legal status of psilocybin mushrooms).

Keep in mind however, that some jurisdictions may still prosecute under a broader scope and you’ll get nailed to the wall for possession of materials with the intended purpose of drug manufacture. Additionally, your grow kit and spores may be legal, but once they develop psilocybin-containing mycelium you have officially stepped into felony territory. So, unless you’re genuinely doing mycology research involving psychedelic mushrooms, it might be worth reading onwards for a lighter, brighter, and pinker introduction to mushroom cultivation. 

Mario may have to deal with his girlfriend being repeatedly kidnapped, but at least he doesn’t have to deal with a misinformed government riding his ass for recreational drug use based on systemic oppression and racism. Wait… which is worse?

I was hired to teach a mycology course to children at an academic camp this summer and I wanted to give them some hands-on experience growing actual mushrooms. The problem is that more than anything else, mushrooms require immense patience. Even with gardening, you can often see a seed sprout fairly quickly and watch as the plant gets taller with each passing day. With mushrooms, there are no seeds; there are microscopic spores that must first germinate in a suitable environment (like seeds in soil). Furthermore, unlike plants, mushrooms (especially psychoactive mushrooms) require extremely sterile conditions since mushroom growth is like Hunger Games for competing fungi; for example: white mycelium = good fungus, green trichoderma = bad fungus.

Green Trichoderma

To circumvent these limitations, I went to our local mycology shop in Montreal (MycoBoutique), and they recommended a fool-proof and fun way to grow mushrooms that even kids could do: growing oyster mushrooms from the pages of a book! Why oyster mushrooms? Well, for whatever reason they are relatively contaminant-resistant like some other culinary mushrooms! They don’t require the same level of sterility that other species necessitate, and so they are ideal for germ-prone school-children (and adults, for that matter!). Why from the pages of a book? Well first, because it’s super fucking cool to repurpose a book and watch it get devoured by mushrooms, and second, because a book contains the food that the oyster mushrooms crave! 

As I taught my students, oyster mushrooms are considered saprobes – which means they break down dead organic material to make energy for themselves to grow and reproduce. When a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around to hear it, saprobic mushrooms like oysters (Pleurotus Ostreatus) will begin to digest the lignin inside the dead tree, decaying the log in the process. Just like you dispose of the waste inside your home, saprobic mushrooms dispose of the waste outside in nature. If it weren’t for this process of decay, all life as we know it would be buried underneath mountains of dead plant material. Thanks, mushrooms! 

Thanks, mushrooms!

So, now that we know oyster mushrooms treat themselves to wood like I treat myself to a large pizza on a lonely Sunday night, and since we hopefully already know that books are made from the wood of trees (or at least my five-year-old students knew this!), we can begin this fun little project:

Step 0:

The process of growing any type of mushroom can be daunting given the number of materials one must acquire and prepare before even hoping to cultivate healthy mycelium. I will touch upon what this process looks like here, but considering this is more of an intersection between art and science, I will leave a more thorough discussion of this process for another article. When starting out with nothing, you get to undertake an impressively rewarding journey of building a little mushroom laboratory. Your time and money are valuable though, so feel free to skip on ahead to Step 1, or read on to expand your mind. 😊

The first thing you will need is the mushroom itself, or at least its spores inside a sterile spore syringe from a reputable mushroom vendor. 

Mushrooms release spores to reproduce, but we can capture their offspring for our own nefarious purposes. Muahahahaha

With spores, you can inoculate agar nutrient media to initiate mycelium growth, or you could even put fresh mushroom tissue on the petri dish to clone its genetics like a mad scientist! In either case, once you have enough healthy mycelium growth (i.e., no mold!), you can use a scalpel to transfer this mycelium into bags or jars of prepared grains.

Just like humans, mushrooms can be impatient sometimes…

Prepared grains: While your mycelium is colonizing the agar, it’s a good idea to get started preparing their new home: the grain spawn. Grain here can refer to wheat, rye, rice, bird seed, oats, and even popcorn for the mycelium to continue colonizing on a grander scale. Spawn here refers to the fact that, once fully colonized, the grain will be visibly dominated by a living fungal culture called mycelium which will be used to spawn the fruiting mushroom bodies

Unlike Columbus, this colonization is healthy AND aggressive

Grain spawn is useful and effective for the stages of mycelium germination: the process by which mycelium grows from spores, and colonization: the process by which the mycelium establishes itself in an area. However, grain spawn is typically only an appetizer for mushrooms, not the main course. Just as humans can exist on a diet solely made of potatoes and milk, we cannot thrive this way. Mushroom mycelium will happily colonize many different materials, some stranger than others (see picture of pasta colonization) – but certain fungal species are incredibly picky about where they will actually fruit (i.e., become mushrooms). 

Another thing to note is that the grains need to be sterilized, which means pressure cooking or autoclaving (if you’re fancy) the grain bags/jars at high enough temperatures that the grain itself is made free from bacteria or other living microorganisms that could interfere with your desired fungal growth; but not so high a temperature that you destroy the nutrient food source for the mushrooms. Without sterilization, you are simply creating an ideal environment not just for your mushroom fungus, but also for other types of harmful fungus molds that may have stowed away on the raw uncooked grains (see image of contaminated jars). 

Colloquial mold names: green meanie, lipstick, cobweb, and black mold

Once you have your sterilized grains, you can use a scalpel to transfer a tiny piece of healthy mycelium on agar to its new home. Regardless of whether you’re using jars or bags, now’s the time to shake, shake, shake, shake, shake – shake it up, shake it up (Whoo-hoo-hoo! – Taylor Swift – Shake It Off – YouTube).

BEFORE: It may look like brie cheese but it’s actually wedges of mycelium!

This will create more points of contact between the uncolonized grain and the agar chunk of mycelium, which will speed up the process of the mycelium stretching out its thread-like tendrils as it looks for nutrients to snack on, yum!

AFTER: Colonized grain spawn! Daddy’s proud

Disclaimer: Don’t let the above process intimidate you! When I first started, the only thing I ever grew was a disgusting if not poignant rainbow of molds, reminding me of the time and money I had invested. It hurts, I won’t sugar-coat it, but it teaches you to be better and is ultimately more cost-efficient in the long run. Grow-kits and pre-colonized bags of grain spawn are expensive.
You will feel a lot more satisfied when you succeed on your own, rather than on the shoulders of others.

Step 1 – Skip the middleman: 

Given the time constraints, I opted to skip the process outlined above and I purchased a big bag of grain spawn that had been pre-colonized for me with pink oyster mushroom mycelium. Regular grey and blue oyster mushrooms were options as well, but there’s something uniquely beautiful about pink oyster mushrooms, as you will soon see for yourself! There are many different methods for growing mushrooms once you have your colonized grain spawn, but I’m not sure any method so elegantly captures the perseverance of mushroom growth as growing from a book does.

Even the mycelium is pink! So pretty!

Step 2 – Here’s a novel idea: 

Go get a book! Any old book will do, as long as the pages aren’t laminated like in a college textbook or cookbook; the mushrooms need to be able to eat the pages after all! Perhaps through my own stubbornness or lack of library, I did not want to subject any of my own books to this fate, so I popped by a local used bookstore in Montreal (La Bouquinerie Du Plateau). At first, they said “we don’t have any books for growing mushrooms” – when I realized I’m an idiot and didn’t phrase my question properly. Once they realized that I wanted to physically grow mushrooms out of a book, they gave me one free of charge! 

Step 3 – It’s getting hot in here (so hot!): 

The book that the used bookstore donated to me is apparently fairly well-known: L’herbe Bleue – The French translation for the fictional diary of a 15-year-old drug addict. Alas, mushroom growth takes priority and also… I can’t read French. ☹

It’s in remarkably good condition for what we plan to do with it…

No need to pressure cook your book! Just use a dish tub or tray to submerge your book under boiling hot water from the kettle. It’s helpful to use oven mitts so you don’t end up in the burn unit and also so you can open the book up and make sure all the pages get thoroughly soaked with hot water. 

Step 4 – Chill out, man: 

Although the hot water was meant to sterilize the pages of our book, the water itself serves a second purpose: Mushrooms love water! Leave the book soaking in your tub until the water has cooled down and it is safe to handle. If the book floats, it’s probably not wet enough. Once your book is properly waterlogged, you’ll want to take it out and let it dry just enough so that you can turn the pages.

Step 5 – It’s feeding time: 

Now that that’s all out of the way, we can combine our grain spawn with our substrate: the organic material that provides mushrooms with the nutrients, moisture, and energy they need to grow and fruit. Our grain spawn is our bag of pre-colonized pink oyster mycelium, and our substrate in this case is our book! Simply turn a few pages, sprinkle grain spawn liberally over one of the open pages, then turn a few more pages while pressing the paper to the grains as you go. For a visual aid, refer to this video from 1:55-2:05: Growing Mushrooms On A Book. In fact, this whole video is a great watch for anyone wanting to try this project and better visualize the steps described in this article. 

Step 6 – The moment we’ve all been waiting for: 

When I say waiting, I really mean it. Once you’ve got your grain spawn sprinkled throughout the pages of your wet book, you can toss that sucker in a Mushroom Grow Bag, twist tie the opening, and watch the magic unfold over the coming weeks. Your patience will be tested and rewarded – leave your book alone!

Polypropylene filter patch bag

The results:

There are plenty of beautiful pictures below, but you can also watch this timelapse I created of the final stage of growth here: Pink Oyster Mushrooms Grown From A Book! 

Note how the mycelium almost appears to “breathe” on the cover of the book as it searches for new nutrients to eat before drying out.

Mycelium has visibly started taking over the book’s cover
Zooming in, we can see the individual tendrils of the mycelium, stretching out to new territories
Around 3 weeks have passed, and some little pink oyster pins are born
At this stage, I decided to remove it from the humid environment of the bag and place it into a clear box
I mist the container occasionally with a spray bottle to keep the book from drying out and to encourage a humid environment
During the fruiting stage, the speed of mushroom growth can be explosive
Pink oyster pins have blossomed all over the book now!
They’re teenagers now, so I rewarded them with a more open-air environment (so I could take better pictures)
I love the way the mycelium stretches between the pages like a spider’s web
After seeing so many beautiful pins growing across the book, I decided to attempt a timelapse to capture the rest of the growth on film
It’s time to harvest and make some scrambled eggs
We have a visitor! This little fungus gnat was hungry but so was I, and I’m gnat going to apologize (heh heh). When cooked, pink oyster mushrooms taste a lot like ham, which is why they go great with eggs.
Steve Beukema is a research scientist with a knack for adventure and novelty. His academic pursuits range from investigating language processing patterns of vegetative state patients in his M.Sc, to uncovering arousal-based pupil mechanics of the human eye during his PhD. Steve believes that education about psychoactive substances is more crucial now than ever before, and that science has fallen behind public perception surrounding psychedelics. Through Psychedelic Experience, he plans to combine his knowledge of neuroscience and passion for cultivation to help resolve this misinformation from spreading further.


About the author

Steve Beukema