Alyssa Sutton

On the second floor of Badgley Hall at Eastern Oregon University, Patrick Morales and Jakob Dewald are attempting a science project that could change the game for mushroom hunters.

The Oregon State University juniors are attempting to grow Morel mushrooms in a controlled environment.

“They’re growing mycelium, which is pretty much the root of the mushroom,” Oregon State University Crop and Soil Science instructor Austin Hawks, who is part of the Eastern Oregon Agriculture and Natural Resource program said. “The mushroom is the fruiting body that then releases the spores, and the mycelium is what grows underground. So we’re not having a fruit yet, but we’re having pretty good luck with growing the mycelium.”

“Right now we’re just drying (the mushrooms),” said Morales, who is a Crop and Soil Science major. Explaining that in the process of drying they are attempting to get spores from the body of the mushroom to drop into the agar plates.

An agar plate is a Petri dish that contains a solid growth medium, typically agar plus nutrients, used to culture small organisms such as micro- organisms.

“The (agar nutrients) is pretty much like jello,” Hawks said. “The spores will release from the mushroom and then the agar plate catches the spore.”

The students have collected Morel mushrooms from Mt. Harris and Mt. Emily, as well as ordering a few online.

“We’re (testing) different mushrooms from around the region, testing data points and spores, to see which ones cultivate better than other ones,” Morales said. “From what I’ve seen with indoor growing, it’s been a specific species (that cultivates). (Plus), since spores that get released are in their own way their own species, we’re trying different mushrooms to make that possible.”

Both Morales and Dewald explained that in Michigan someone successfully grew a Morel mushroom indoors, but the mushroom was contaminated by a bacteria fungus and the grower was never able to replicate the mushroom again. They also said that China is cultivating one species of Morel –– the Black Morel mushroom –– successfully in a controlled environment outdoors, but the students’ goal is to grow one of the Morel species indoors.

“A lot of people have success outdoors, but indoors is definitely a challenge,” Dewald, who is earning an Agricultural major and a Crop and Soil minor, said. “Capturing the spores, I think, is where a lot of the challenge comes from,
because a lot of contamination can occur, so that’s probably the hardest step right now.”

“(Other) mushrooms have a cap and their spores come out of the bottom, but with Morels it’s more out of the top,” Morales said. “To get an official spore print with a morel is a little bit different. Usually we just lay it down or we do the drying method.”

Morales has grown other mushrooms before, such as Lions Mane and Shiitake mushrooms. He is pulling on that experience for the current project after Dewald had the idea of growing Morel mushrooms.

“I’m originally from Hawaii and had never heard of a Morel before,” Dewald said. “My friends said we should go hunting this mushroom and later I realized how hard it is to cultivate indoor spores.”

He brought the idea to Morales who came to the same conclusion, and they decided to see what they could do.

“Cultivating (Morel mushrooms) indoors all year round would provide chefs access no matter what,” Morales said. “Especially since they’re in such high demand during the season.” He explained that Morel mushrooms also have a different life cycle than other mushrooms.

“Normally they have a wintering period –– like an apple tree,” Morales said.

Morales and Dewald plan on collecting as many spores as they can, then while they’re gone for the summer, the mushrooms will be in their wintering period.

“We’re trying to cultivate a fruiting body,” Morales said. “What we want to do is find a way to cultivate them indoors all year round (in a way that) doesn’t affect the ecosystem as much as it normally would.”

The students are also asking the community to share Morel mushrooms to benefit their project. They’re only asking for one mushroom, and don’t have to know the region it was collected from, but if they were informed would keep it a secret.

“All of my students think outside of the box,” Hawks said. “Some students create a whole new box, and these two have done that.”

To provide Morel mushrooms for the research project contact Austin Hawks at austin.hawks@oregonstate.edu or call (541) 962-3543.

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