Wine Cap: The Mighty Mushroom Multi-tasker
Say you're at your local farm market this spring and you pass a vendor who is selling a mushroom you have never seen before. It is a handsome mushroom with a port red cap color and ivory colored stem. You ask the vendors to tell you about it. The vendor, with an excited gleam in her eye, says that the mushrooms are called Wine Caps and they grow on their farm, outdoors on wood chips or sawdust, and not in caves or special grow rooms. Its texture is crunchy, with a mild taste. It is best harvested in the button stage and is one of the very best mushrooms to pickle. You buy some and take them home. Sautéed and scattered across a green salad, you are quite happy with your local market and the innovative growers who supply you with such cool new products.
A handful of perfect Wine Caps prepped for market (photo courtesy of Pierre-Luc Choquette, Quebec)
What the vendor may not tell you is that besides being a good culinary mushroom, it has other useful qualities that we are just now learning about. Wine Cap Stropharia (Stropharia rugosa annulata) is native to North America and is being trialed for a whole bunch of uses, not just for food. Most of us plant Wine Caps outdoors for food in big beds of wood chips, straw or a combination of the two. Other people are looking at Wine Cap for something extra. For example, in agricultural regions with livestock manure run-off problems, it can be grown in straw- and wood chip-filled burlap sacks. The sacks are tucked into watercourses, and with Wine Cap's powerful mycelium-knitted net, screen out bacteria.
Wine cap-myceliated straw mixed with wood chips and stuffed into burlap sacks makes for a mycofliter in areas of agricultural run-off. (Photo from Mino De Angelis) For more on this project, take a look at "Using Mushroom Mycelium to Filter Bacteria from EBMUD Watersheds by Co-Renewal" at www.corenewalproject.org
Plenty of mushrooms generated from the mycofilter bags (Photo courtesy Mino De Angelis)
Wine Cap is also being tested as a disease-suppressing agent by mulching myceliated straw in with potatoes and tomatoes to thwart Phytopthera and Alternaria. Grape growers are testing Wine cap mycelium for disease suppression under grape vines, not to mention the ability for the mycelium to capture nematodes. Most usefully, it digests straw and woody litter within a summer or two, quickly converting large thick mats of organic material high in carbon to a fungal rich layer of organic matter and humus.
Phoebe is layering straw and wood chips with wine cap spawn, with straw and wood chips under grape vines and in an asparagus bed.
Planting Wine Caps
You can plant Wine Cap any time from early spring through fall; it's best to inoculate when nighttime temperatures are above freezing and when daytime temperatures are below 95 degrees (F). However, depending on your location, you can plant almost any time. Wine Caps grow on a wide range of carbon-rich materials but there are a few important things to consider:
In general, a large range of different particle sizes of substrates works best. We recommend layers of moistened straw with wood chips as the straw has more air space and the wood chips are more dense, combining the best of both worlds: fast spawn colonization (provided by the straw) and longevity (thanks to the dense wood chips). In general, straw beds last 1-2 seasons and wood chip beds 2-4, depending on the size of chip, density and type. Hardwood chips are preferred, though conifer chips work well if composted for a few years.
Abundant harvest from 6 year old pine chips. (Photo courtesy of Van Bialon, Emily, MN)
Myceliated wood chips a month after planting
While late season mushrooms provide the best quality because of the cooler nights and high humidity, lots of fruiting can also be had in the spring. Just be aware that the mushrooms can look a little different depending on variable spring weather. For example, almost silvery caps to lots of cracking. Check out the photos below with some classic markers: knobby ring on the stem, charcoal colored gills (milky grey on young mushrooms), and straight stem with white "rootlets".
These specimens show the classic white stem, pale red cap and broken ring on the stem. Cap color heightens with humidity.
Spring harvested Wine Cap; note the variable appearance of the caps.
While Wine Caps are not highly flavored, the appearance and texture more than makes up for it. It can be planted throughout the growing season on a huge range of substrates; one of the best sources is from your municipality's waste yard where they grind up loads of branches, and it's usually free for the taking! Harvesting these garnet colored jewels is a delight and can be experienced by almost anyone with a yard.
Little Wine Cap buttons, cleaned with a pastry brush, can be braised whole with spring vegetables for a special meal.