You Like To Know More About Mushrooms?

Interview with Erwin Karl!

Erwin grew up in the Catskills Mountain upstate New York and is devoting his time to mushrooms and herbs grown in upstate New York.

Watch our one + one interview!

Erwin: Welcome to the farm.

Konstanze: I would like to ask you a few questions and one of the first ones is what inspired you to know so much about mushrooms.

Erwin: No, I’ve been gathering wild plants to eat or use as medicine since I was a kid and I was spending so much time in the woods doing a lot of hiking. I always saw a mushroom. So it was probably 10 years ago I just got curious and so I started working with other people and having them point out the different characteristics of the mushrooms. I learned, you know, the learning curve really accelerated and I learned how to identify, you know, you start with the most common mushrooms that are common in the area, identify the easy ones, learn the characteristics and then once I got a collection of guides and started using online resources, it got to the point where I was able to identify a lot more mushrooms more easily. Probably five or six years ago I also started making tinctures which I had been doing with herbs. Research the different methods of taking wild mushrooms that are common in the Catskills and making medicines out of them.

Konstanze: Tell us a little bit about the mushroom walks and the mushrooms you grow, please.

Erwin: We’re doing a lot of group hikes, especially with the Mid-Hudson Mycological Association. Basically, we go around, look at the different areas that mushrooms grow in and talk about the characteristics used to identify them along the way. Hopefully we, you know, would find some edibles and some interesting mushrooms and about what they’re growing in, how they grow, picking a few and looking at the macroscopic features.

Konstanze: So if you…you also grow mushrooms. Would you show us a little bit what you do, please?

Erwin: So I’ll actually show you some of my…this is…I’m in my mushroom yard and that’s why I’m outside. The main process or the easiest process probably is drilling holes in logs and using special tools to introduce the spawn into the log and to prevent contamination or other fungi from getting into the same log, you seal it with wax. Most of the growth of the mushroom is invisible. It’s inside the wood. It’s called mycelium. It’s like a white fibrous kinda shiny substance. Mushroom log reaches the correct temperature and humidity. That’s when they fruit. So that’s the part of the mushroom that we’re more familiar with. It’s actually a reproductive body and its function is to produce spores. But in the process of producing those spores, those mushrooms also produce proteins, the B vitamins and depending on the species, a whole bunch of different medicinal compounds. And those medicinal compounds have been used traditionally. So traditional healers knew that certain types of mushrooms heal certain types of conditions but now we’ve gotten to the point where we have hospitals and universities doing research and they’re actually identifying what’s in the mushroom that makes it beneficial and what conditions of human illness or health it may be able to aide.

Konstanze: With COCORAU [SP] I use powderized mushrooms because we make powder elixirs. That will be triple extracted, then dehydrated, and then grinded?

Erwin: Yeah, yeah, that’s…yeah, you have to, you know, be a little cautious about your sourcing which I know you’re probably pretty thorough with but depending on the supplier…and you can buy all kinds of mushrooms online and it might just be somebody harvested, dehydrated it and then ground the mushroom into a powder in which case, depending on how you use it later, you’d only get some of the compounds. In other cases, the suppliers may have done a full triple extraction, dehydrated it and created a powder with it which…you know, in which case you’d have, you know…all the compounds would be available.

Konstanze: Yeah. I make sure that this is the case. In the Catskills we don’t have a white ear mushroom, Tremella, do we? You never…have you ever seen that?

Erwin: No, that I believe mainly grows in Asia but we have Yellow Tremella. It grows on usually hardwoods, oaks and it’s…sometimes it’s called Witch’s Butter. It is yellow. So it’s in the same genus. It’s edible. As far as the medicinal compound benefits, I don’t think it has the same properties as the White Tremella. And then there’s another, Orange Jelly which looks very similar, also edible. It grows on hemlock known as the Dacrymyces.

Konstanze: Yeah. I know that one. And you also showed me that one when we had a walk, when we took a walk together.

Erwin: Yeah, yeah.

Konstanze: Where do you reside in the Catskills? Are you further north or at what area?

Erwin: The town of Andes, New York.. It’s kind of this western central Catskills. So we’re just a few miles west of the…if you look at the Catskill range, you have a bunch of peaks over 3,500 feet. The last mountain that’s taller than 3,000 feet is about a mile east of here. So we’re kind of where the Catskills are kind of petering out and, you know, turning into a high plateau.

Konstanze: Do you find your mushrooms when you go on hikes mainly around the area where you’re staying?

Erwin: I’m in a really good area. The farm I’m on is 23 acres. But it’s almost completely surrounded by city-owned land which is basically public land that you’re allowed to hike on. And across the road from me I have…there’s a small stream in a ravine and on the edge of that ravine I have all kinds of Norway Spruce and hemlock growing and those pine groves…I really discovered a lot of native species of mushroom that are really abundant growing at the base of those pines. And some of the mushrooms that have a relationship with the trees only grow near certain types of trees. So I was able to find Amanita Rubescens which is in a family of mushrooms that include some very poisonous ones but that one happens to be edible. There’s also one hallucinogenic mushroom in that genus which I’ve also found pretty abundantly. People who are into culinary mushrooms are undoubtedly familiar with the Porcini and those are most commonly found near pines. So I find a lot of those around here.

Going a little further up the mountain I found all kinds of Reishi, Maitake.  Oyster mushrooms are always, you know, common almost anywhere. I mean, you know, they grow in different types of wood. But, you know, you can literally…John grew them in a pair of jeans. So they can be trained to grow on anything.

Konstanze: Mushrooms are just so fascinating, the way they grow and where they grow and what they do and especially the benefits for us.

Erwin: You know, we’ve been talking about…from a human health standpoint how beneficial the mushrooms are to consume whether as a culinary, you know, enjoyment or medicinally. But, you know, when you study mushrooms, there is also a lot of research coming out on the ecological role. And thanks to some of the research as well as movies like Fantastic Fungi, a lot more people are becoming aware of the ecological importance, how under the soil whether they’re breaking down wood and other organic matter or just growing in the soil. The fungi are actually working with the microbes of various types of bacteria and other, you know, usually single-cell organisms. But they’re not just breaking down decaying wood to make soil. They’re actually helping trees and other plants uptake nutrients and water and some of that research has really shown some amazing effects where the underground mat of mushroom mycelium along with the bacteria are transmitting nutrients and, in a sense, are transmitting information. So if a plant gets invaded with a pest, another plant that might be…it could be a tree, it could be a shrub hundreds of feet away might get some chemical impulses through the soil that actually warn the plant that the pests are invading and some of the plants have natural defenses. But they’ve, you know, documented that the plants are, in a sense, getting information from other plants thanks to the fungi.

Konstanze: See? I just wanted to say that I know that…I read about it, how the plants are all communicating through mushrooms and that we actually are all connected through mushrooms. And these are all new studies we’re just discovering or people just discover and that’s why it’s so incredible that you were so far ahead even…I always went out in Austria with my parents to get culinary mushrooms but I didn’t know about the health benefits or nobody thought about it. We were just eating it because they taste great.

Erwin: Yeah, yeah. Multiple benefits. And we’re no exception there so far. There’s not a lot of research on it but if you look at the human system, they’ve identified that at least 260 species of mushrooms on and inside the human body. So, you know, some of them…a lot of them are in the family of yeast and they might be on our skin, in our hair but in the digestive tract, you’ll also find different species of mushrooms that we believe they are playing some role cooperating essentially with the bacteria that live within our digestive tract. And when those fungi and microbes in our system are balanced properly, they’re essential to good health. If there’s an imbalance, obviously, you can have a health problem. So we’re just like the soil on that. The fungi are also part of us and, you know, playing some role in maintaining our health.

Konstanze: If you would have unlimited income, would it change the way you live?

Erwin: I’d probably hire some people to help inoculate logs. Maybe I’d buy like a big tractor and a big woodchipper and our Wine Cap patches would be, you know, several acres large.

Konstanze: So you would definitely stay with mushrooms and get even further into it and maybe broadcast it further to people?

Erwin: Yeah, yeah. And actually, you know, most of what I do with mushrooms is very inexpensive. So, you know, winning the lottery wouldn’t really enable me to do things that I’m not already doing. It’s a…you know, you can get a…you can disseminate spawn, you can collect either spores or mycelium from wild mushrooms and then create a temperature and humidity-controlled environment that’s somewhat sterile and you can grow out mushrooms. You know, or you can buy them from commercial suppliers and it’s pretty inexpensive. The main downside is, you know, time and labor. It is labor-intensive to cut logs to, you know, four- or five-foot lengths and, you know, drill holes in them and introduce the spawn. So yeah, if I had a little more budget, I would, you know, be glad to hire people, train them how to grow mushrooms and then, you know, get a team of people out and, you know, just have hundreds of logs and, you know, produce a bunch of mushrooms. I mean, we did…at one farm we did about 200 oak logs with just one cold weather strain of Shiitakes and we did that with volunteer labor. So it was a little, you know…convincing people was fun which it actually is if you have, you know, a mushroom cultivation party. It’s pretty good. But yeah. If you wanna do a lot, it’s really just the labor of getting the materials, introducing the spawn and then once you’ve done that, it pretty much proceeds on its own so it’s just a matter of having time to wait for the mushrooms to show themselves.

Konstanze: So you said you started as a little kid. Where were you born? In the Catskills?

Erwin: Yeah.

Konstanze: Okay.

Erwin: Yeah. Well, I am…was in the town of Catskill which is a river town right on the Hudson River but from where our house was situated, I also, you know, looked…about 10 miles to the west was the edge of the Catskill mountain escarpment. So I grew up looking at the Catskills and every time we had a chance, we hiked or camped in the Catskills. So, you know, Hudson Valley, Catskills. So I’m both a river rat and a stump jumper. 

Konstanze: This is totally your backyard?

Erwin: Yeah, yeah.

Konstanze: Good. And is there anything… what would inspire you to be…anybody who would inspire you to be?

Erwin: In terms of people I admire? There’s a lot of people who are doing research on mushrooms. And it’s not that common on the university level to get like a doctorate as a mycologist. You really have to major in biology and then people specialize when they do their research in mushrooms. It’s less common in North America than it is say in Europe or Asia. But there’s a lot of do it yourself type mushroom people who are doing research. They’re setting up labs in their houses. I have a little microscope lab which helps me study the mushrooms. And then folks have set up commercial operations where they take, you know, a garage, a part of the barn and start growing mushrooms. So the people are kind of doing, you know, figuring it out and doing it on themselves. There’s people like William Padilla-Brown, Peter McCoy are two prominent people who are both cultivating but they’re also doing research and educating other people in inexpensive and fairly easy ways that you can harness the power of mushrooms for yourself.

Konstanze: Are all the mushrooms John (founder of Catskill Fungi)and you are using for extraction, they’re mushrooms you find yourself, or do you buy mushrooms as well?

Erwin: No. I mean, we’re really so fortunate to be in the Catskills and, you know, at the edge of the Hudson Valley. There’s all these species of medicinal mushrooms. The ones I’ve mentioned are all quite common. So in the course of spending time in the woods and sustainably harvesting, you know, it’s very important that people don’t learn one type of medicinal mushroom and then, you know, harvest everything they see. I harvest less than a third of what I see. And, you know, keeping that precaution in place, I still bring back enough mushrooms that I can make tinctures for myself and to share with, you know, people who are maintaining health or dealing with health problems.

Konstanze: I will put an email address of you into our interview so people can actually for next years write you if they’re interested in learning from you, going on a hike with you. And I will also put a link of John’s Extractions in there so people can buy it and try it for themselves and see the benefits of it. Thank you so much for being here and taking the time and explaining mushrooms to me and Kukural followers. And I only work with a few of them but your knowledge is so much bigger and it’s always fascinating to me to learn more.

Erwin: Oh, no problem. It’s a pleasure speaking with you.

Konstanze: Thank you very much.

Erwin: Okay. Take care now.

Konstanze: You too.

Mushroom tour with Erwin:  eakarl@yahoo.com

Mushroom resources: Tinctures, mushroom walks, cultivation workshops (John Michelotti): www.catskillfungi.com

Additional resources: Spawn, mushroom cultivation (Alisa Javits): www.sugarshackmushrooms.com

Research, education, spawn: Tradd Cotter, William Padilla Brown, Peter McCoy

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