The magic of mushrooms

Craig and Nikki Fourie of Mushroom Guru in the Strand, with some of their babies, bunches of Ganoderma lucidi medicinal mushrooms.

If you’ve ever wondered where those magnificent exotic mushrooms – like oyster and shiitake – that you see in the supermarket in that usually single-use plastic packaging come from,  they are cultivated by people who have mastered the mysteries of fungi.

Contrary to popular belief, mushrooms – all of which are members of the fungal kingdom – are neither plant or animal. They are a group of eukaryotic organisms that includes microorganisms such as yeasts and moulds, as well as the more familiar mushrooms.

This fungal kingdom is separate from the other eukaryotic life kingdoms of plants and animals.

Aside from the familiar mushrooms which we eat, the fungal kingdom includes yeasts which are used in leavening bread and fermenting wine, and the far less salubrious moulds and mildews that we encounter in those places that are warm, moist, seldom see much light, and experience little air exchange. Think about that black mould that grows in the shower, and that blue-green mould that grows on the loaf of bread you left wrapped up in its plastic bag on the counter top during the heat of summer.

Whereas the plant and animal kingdoms are far better known and understood, the fungi kingdom is still, in many respects, shrouded in mystery, but the work of dedicated myco-philes has done much to unwrap the enduring enigma of fungi.

Craig and Nikki Fourie are two such myco-philes, who run Mushroom Guru in the Strand, where anybody can learn about the magic of mushrooms, whether it be out of curiosity, the inclination to “grow your own” for personal use or consumption, or to start a business which cultivates mushrooms  – medicinal or edible – and sells them to retailers or consumers.

“When we started the business in 2013 I had R56 in my bank account,” says Craig. “We’d moved here from Port Elizabeth when Nikki got a promotion in the corporate sector.

“We agreed that she would continue in that job for the first five years and then she’d work with me on something that I had created but initially we weren’t sure what that would be.”

Craig continued to do work remotely for the company he had left in Port Elizabeth, also building websites and doing graphic design which was facilitated by his background in mechanical design and his qualification as a tool, jig and die maker. “Pretty much everything you see here,” says Craig gesturing at the intriguing array of equipment in the room, “I designed and made myself.”

One such item is an ingenious humidifying device with a variety of sensors, that is remotely controlled by a cellphone app.

The business has two distinct pillars. Growing of the medicinal mushroom, Ganoderma lucidum – known as Linghzi in China, and Reishi in Japan  – and the extraction of bioactive molecules, such as terpenoids, steroids, phenols, nucleotides and their derivatives, glycoproteins, and polysaccharides.

These bioactive compounds are highly valued in Eastern cultures for their medicinal properties, and although their efficacy has until recently been the subject of largely anecdotal evidence, a literature review of contemporary scientific research papers concludes: “Many cellular mechanisms have been proposed to explain the mode of action of its active metabolites and their healthcare attributes including anticancer, antiviral, antioxidant and protective effects on liver and other secondary lymphoid organs.”

This is but one of 742 papers listed in a Google scholar search for “ganoderma lucidum health benefits”.

A nearby lab which is American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) inspected, and operates according to best manufacturing practices (BMP), extracts and packages these compounds in 15mg capsules, which gives Craig access to the global market. A month’s supply of the capsules – dubbed MG-LZ8 – costs R435 locally.

The process by which Craig grows Ganoderma lucidum in his growing room is a trade secret, but it is this process which dramatically improves the potency of the bioactive compounds which end up in the extract. “The actives go up 29-fold in the extract, compared to in the ground up mushroom,” Craig says, which has been verified by high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC).

According to Craig, MG-LZ8 helps to normalise blood cholesterol and blood sugar, improves the gut flora among other efficacies, and it does so by “placing the body in a state of homeostasis because of its adaptogenic properties”.

Research into its use in treating type-1 diabetes is currently under way, and the results are promising. “It’s (MG-LZ8) not a drug,” says Craig, adding that it is not registered with the Medicines Control Council because of the prohibitive cost of doing so, and the narrow definitions enforced by the registration process.

“You can have only a single claim for each registration, pain relief for example, but this is a compound, not an isolate, so you’d be putting the same compound in a number of different products, each with a single claim, pain relief, blood sugar control, cholesterol control.” The result is that the product can only be sold as a food supplement, and it may not make any specific health claims.

Besides the medicinal mushroom side of the business, Craig and Nikki run courses during which you can learn how to grow your own mushrooms. The “Weekend Warrior” course is three hours in duration, and initially taught how to inoculate a log with shiitake dowels that have been inoculated with shiitake mycelium, the  vegetative part of a fungus, consisting of a mass of branching, thread-like hyphae. Over a six-month to a year period, the mycelium will colonise the log completely.

“All you’ll need to do is look after it. Keep it out of direct sunlight and water it once a week,” says Craig. “Look after it, and it’ll look after you.” Once the log is completely colonised, dipping it in water will “shock” the mycelium into fruiting, and it is this process that explains the mystery of why mushrooms grow. As long as the mycelium has a regular supply of food, its growing conditions are stable, and it is not threatened in any way, it will continue to grow ad infinitum, but as soon as it is damaged or exposed to a threat – heat, cold, light, oxygen, among others – it will fruit to produce spores to ensure its survival.

“Dipping the log in water – depriving it of air – will cause the mycelium in the log to fruit, and it will provide you with mushrooms for up to three years, if it’s an oak log,” says Craig.

The “Weekend Warrior” course (How to Grow Exotic and Medicinal Mushrooms)teaches how to prepare and pack a mushroom grow bag for cultivating various exotic and medicinal mushrooms. More than 520 people have attended this course since its inception.

The “Advanced Fungi Culturing Course” is not for the faint-hearted, according to Craig, but if you are serious about growing mushrooms, this is for you.

Consisting of four modules which can take in any sequence you choose, and over any time span that suits you, will equip you with all the knowledge you need to make nutrient agar for petri dishes, taking a mushroom sample and cloning it on a petri dish, isolate good mycelium from “bad” contaminations, make master spawn and how to multiply it, make your own mushroom grow bags, and tips and tricks about harvesting, in effect to be able to start your own mushroom business. Over 140 people have attended this course. The course fee includes membership of the online Mushroom Guru Academy with access to a wealth of resources to support you in setting up your mushroom business.

Mushroom Guru also sells all of the consumables for the mushroom grower, be it inoculated dowels, substrates, spawns, cleaning equipment and materials, culturing supplies, and various items of production equipment.

Contact Nikki on orders@mushroomguru.co.za, Craig on info@mushroomguru.co.za, or visit www.mushroomguru.co.za