Maine-grown shiitake mushrooms lend immune system boost

Oyster Creek Mushroom in Damariscotta offers kits to grow in backyard
Thu, 07/06/2023 - 8:15am

Shiitake mushrooms, mainly found growing in East Asia, have been a traditional Chinese and Japanese food as medicine since the 12th century. Packed with fiber, vital minerals, and unique compounds, shiitake mushrooms activate the immune system, reduce blood pressure, fight cancerous cells, reduce inflammation, and lower cholesterol.

Oyster Creek Mushroom Company, owned by Candice Heydon in Damariscotta, has been growing and selling shiitake as well as other fresh, wild mushroom varieties since 1989. Her clients come from all over the world.

“At my peak, I was doing five flower shows every year, as well as multiple farmer’s markets, and would sell to a lot of restaurants,” said Heydon, who is now semi-retired.

She has spent the last 30 years growing or purchasing mushrooms and, these days, only sells to select clients, while occasionally attending farmer’s markets. Her main source of business now is selling dried mushrooms through her website. Her specialty is Shiitake Growing Kits ($30) which include 300 shiitake plugs inoculated on hardwood dowels and complete instructions on how to transfer them into oak trees.

“I’ve had couples buy my Shiitake Growing Kits as a project together, get a divorce, and then fight over the log they were growing on. People get attached to them.”

-Candice Heydon, Oyster Creek Mushroom Co.

Borrowed from Japanese, the word shiitake comes from shī, (which means “shii or chinquapin tree”) and take (which means “mushroom”).

“Tree mushrooms are the easiest to grow because the tree is a sterile environment,” said Heydon.

Her advice for growing shiitake starts with the tree. First, select healthy, young, living trees in stands that need to be thinned. Avoid damaging the bark. Cut logs with diameters between four to eight inches, cut to four-foot length.

The traditional Japanese growing method is to use a small dowel containing the mushroom spawn and insert each dowel into the log. The white wood rot fosters the growing process. Her website provides instructions on how to get mushrooms to grow. The process takes five to 10 months and fruits in the spring and fall.

Beyond the health benefits of shiitake mushrooms, the texture has been described as “meaty,” making them an ideal vegetarian substitute with a rich, umami flavor that intensifies when cooked. Having cooked with them for more than 30 years, Heydon said some of her favorite recipes on her website, including mushrooms in cream sauce over pasta, mushroom-dusted fish, wild mushroom dip, and wild mushroom soup.

Or just cook them up with butter and you’re all set.

“Start with a very hot pan before you put them in and fry them as you would potatoes and don’t crowd them, get them nice and brown,” she said.

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