Hemlock Varnish Shelf Mushroom - to pick or not to pick?
You’ve got reishi questions, I’ve got reishi answers! In this blog we’ll discuss the best time to pick reishi is in the Northeastern US, how to sustainably pick it and I’ll share many of my field observations about Reishi. These observations have developed my knowledge about the ecology of wild Reishi over the past six years. I’m presenting this knowledge to you with hope that it will help you understand the vast ecological factors involved in the harvest of Wild Appalachian Red Reishi (Ganoderma tsugae). I will show you how to confidently harvest your heart out while leaving a positive impact on our forests at large.
The key to harvesting anything sustainably begins with a deep understanding of what you intend to harvest. Understanding the harvestable as a living organism - and understanding ourselves as mammals who have an ability to form symbiotic relationships.
The First Question To Ask: What Role Does Reishi Play in the Forest?
Reishi decomposes hemlock trees. Not just any hemlock tree, ancient, massive hemlock trees. Whether the hemlock fell during a wind storm, struck and killed by lightning or destroyed by the invasive Hemlock Wooly Adelgid (an aphid-like pest), when a hemlock hits the ground, Reishi hears the sound. At some point after, it is likely that a Reishi spore will find its way to the felled tree.
After spores find their way to the hemlock, the mycelium Ganoderma tsugae (AKA North American reishi) will colonize the trunk of the tree. Reishi mycelium will colonize both felled and upright hemlock trees. Even though this mycelium is not typically visible to us while looking at it from the outside, it will now occupy it’s hemlock host for 7 years or more in order to decompose and return the tree to the Earth. This hemlock trunk will flush full with Red Reishi mushrooms multiple times, over numerous years. The hemlock will get softer overtime and will eventually be reduced to moss.
Does Reishi grow in New York? Maine? Vermont? New Hampshire? Connecticut? Pennsylvania? North Carolina? Delaware?
Ganoderma tsugae grows wherever old hemlock populations and sufficient moisture exist. Ask yourself, where do hemlock trees grow? Can you confidently identify a hemlock tree? Do you know of any local forests featuring big hemlock trees? If you haven’t found Reishi yet, I have a key tip for you. Stop looking for reishi and start looking for dead hemlock trees. For your convenience, here is a map of eastern hemlock in the United States.
Does Reishi (Ganoderma tsugae) Grow Every Year?
No. Well, yes. Maybe? This sounds like a yes or no question, but there is not a yes or no answer. Here’s the thing…Reishi (Ganoderma tsugae) has on-years and off-years.
What do I mean by that? Reishi will flush mushrooms vigorously during one summer, but not flush the next year. One year it will be everywhere I look, yet the next year it can be seemingly impossible to find. This has been the case for the 6 summers that I’ve immersed myself in the ecology of reishi.
My Historical Observations On Reishi Growth
2018 was the first reishi season that I participated in as an enthusiast and wildcrafter. It was a magnificent summer. I harvested so much Reishi for the very first time. It was an incredibly exciting time.
In 2019, there was not any new reishi. You could still see the decaying bodies of old rotten reishi from the year prior (sometimes people are mistaken, thinking the deep brown reishi corpses are a current year’s flush.) Those were not fresh Reishi - they were dead Reishi from 2018. I had heard musings that reishi was inconsistent about its season and did not always come back until several years later. I was incredibly bummed when I learned firsthand that this was true.
In 2020 once again, an explosion of reishi! The same logs that had fruited in 2018 had returned after some 700+ days of dormancy, and were teeming with Red Reishi mushrooms. A wildcrafter’s dream.
In 2021, Reishi was incredibly scarce. I would use the word absent were it not for the fact that I did indeed find THREE Reishi mushrooms in 2021. By then I had also obtained information from peers making clear that a couple Reishi mushrooms had similarly fruited in 2019 (when I had not seen any), just not nearly as many as the year before or the year after.
I entered 2022 expecting it to be an on-year. I was right! Shoutout to mother nature - because Reishi is definitely ON.
Does This Mean Reishi ‘Ganoderma tsugae’ Mushrooms Grow Every Other Year?
If an oversimplification is necessary, then I tend to say, “Reishi grows every other year.” But that simplification lacks nuance and overlooks two key points.
1. It is not technically true. You might be able to find at least 1 Reishi mushroom every single year, it is just extremely scarce in comparison to the ‘on’ years. My rough estimate is that for every 1 reishi mushroom found during an off-year, 250+ can be found during an on-year.
2. I don’t really know any folk who have the data or observational history to definitively conclude that the every-other-year pattern holds true over longer periods of time.
In addition, who is really to say that we won’t have a Reishi explosion again in 2023 that surprises us? Likewise, even if no Reishi is found in 2023, who is to say we can guarantee that it will fruit in 2024? Who is to tell nature what to do and how to operate?
I’m excited to see what the future brings. Expect the unexpected. When wild reishi rocks you, don’t say you were never warned.
Reishi Is In Sync Throughout Appalachia
Reishi will operate in sync in this on/off way throughout the entire northeastern United States. If it is an on-year in North Carolina, it is also an on-year in Maine, and everywhere in between. If it is off here, it is off there.
The reishi may come a few weeks later in the north compared to the southernmost areas, but it’s clear that Reishi is cyclic and in harmony throughout eastern forests spanning hundreds of miles. Some summers have it, some summers don’t - spanning its entire range.
The Number Of Flushes Is The Real Kicker.
The best reishi on-years are the years where multiple flushes of reishi occur in one season. In order to understand this phenomenon and the conditions that enable it, allow me to share my own experience from this year (2022.)
I had been checking in on one particular dead hemlock daily in search of reishi. The lunar eclipse was coming up and I knew something meaningful would happen. The lunar cycles always affect me in extraordinary ways.
The night of the lunar eclipse was upon us, May 17th, 2022. This day and night were the PERFECT storm for a reishi flush. The first factor being that it had torrentially downpoured for hours throughout the afternoon. Mushies love the rain!
The second factor was that the overnight temperatures plummeted to 39 degrees Fahrenheit (just under 4 degrees Celsius.) As you can imagine, I was almost too excited to sleep that night, knowing that there was a great chance that Reishi would flush the next day. It had been a long two year wait, and I was jumping out of my boots to see the first reishi mushroom of 2022.
The next day, I followed up with my dear hemlock friend to find that the previously bare tree was now boasting a cluster of newborn reishi mushrooms that had erupted overnight. These mushrooms would be flush number 1. I knew that more flushes would come, as long as those two key factors were fulfilled.
With any luck, maybe after a week or two, maybe the very next night - these two key conditions (high humidity and cold night time temperatures) would set the stage for flush number 2. If reishi flushes two nights back to back, the mushrooms that emerge may be difficult to differentiate into groups based on flush date. However, flushes separated by a week or more will reflect tangibly different growth stages as the summer progresses.
In 2018, I want to say that we got about 3 flushes in my neck of the woods. In 2020, we got more like 6. Nights anywhere from 37 degrees Fahrenheit up into the mid 40s seem to be prime for new Reishi flushes. It then takes about 5-6 weeks for a flush to become ready to harvest. We will discuss what determines readiness to harvest shortly, but understanding how flushing works is critical before we move on.
To me, the number of times reishi flushes during an on-year is a matter of luck. While that may be out of your control, you can control the range and observational efforts of your scouting which will surely result in noticing more of the flushes that occur. Microclimates are no joke! It might be 10 degrees cooler in one area than another a few miles away. If you don’t check them all, you could miss out! There are more factors to consider as well; mountain pockets of fog, precipitation corridors, and unusually extreme microclimates within a broader latitude could produce more flushes, especially later on in the summer.
That being said, the Adirondack mountain range won’t experience the same number of flushes on the same nights. However, much of the bell curve probably will. Keep looking and things get complex. Be wiser than the herd. I always find areas that will continue to flush bigger and better Reishi mushrooms, long after other harvesters have picked through the most common harvesting locations.
How to sustainably harvest Red Reishi: When is Ganoderma tsugae ready to pick?
Imagine how frustrating it is to patiently wait for a flush of Reishi to reach maturity, only to return to find it picked clean. Especially when it is picked prematurely. Mushrooms are reproductive organs of fungi and they are here to perform one vital purpose: TO MAKE AND SPREAD SPORES!
Most folk say that Reishi is ready to pick ‘when the red reaches the edge.’ Meaning that the reishi is ready to harvest after the white/yellow ring of new growth on the outer edge of the mushroom disappears, being replaced with the red of the mature mushroom flesh. This is a good general rule of thumb, but I suggest this better one: Check to see if the Reishi has dropped spores.
You should easily be able to tell. The underside may have evidence of brown spores actively falling. If the reishi mushroom is low to the ground, you may see a rust brown powder beneath it. More often though, the spores will end up on the surface of the mushrooms beneath. Reishi mushrooms grow overlapping or under/over each other often. I believe that this is nature’s design, so that the spores fall on a smooth surface. After all, these spores must be efficient at getting airborne in order to find a new hemlock host, which is much easier from the smooth surface of another mushroom than the ground, densely packed with vegetation.
If you see spores, especially lots of spores, you can pick the Reishi sustainably. In fact, that is the entire design of this mushroom. Like apples allure humans, deer, and mammals alike, reishi is calling our attention. The fungus is not harmed when you pick it’s mushrooms, the fungus continues to live on. You then become the vehicle of spores. Reishi spores will hitchhike wherever you go, until you shower them off.
As sentient as we humans are, I got the idea two years ago to make a point to rub some of my harvests (and therefore spores too) on the dead hemlock trees present and lacking Reishi. This year I observed that my efforts worked on a tree that I keep up with regularly! It’s really not that difficult, it is common sense and intuition.
To spread spores manually, the vessel of transport should not conceal the Reishi such that the spores are not allowed to trickle off in the wind. Don’t put Reishi in a backpack. Carry a woven basket. Walk through the forest, don’t drive around and hunt from the road. Get off the beaten path. Consciously engage in a legitimate symbiotic relationship!
How much Reishi can be harvested sustainably? How much is too much to pick?
I would suggest literally asking for permission. You won’t get an answer in words but if you train yourself to genuinely and intentionally ask for permission, you’ll take a moment to consider the implications of your harvest. Look around. There are various spore eating beetles that feed on Reishi spores and act as symbiotic agents to make more Reishi. They have a role on this planet regardless of whether or not we understand it.
Then consider the gross little mushroom maggots that appear in clusters on the undersides of mushrooms from time to time. As annoying as they are, they have a role on this planet regardless of whether or not we understand it.
Consider the salamanders and slugs. Ask all of these beings too. How much am I allowed to harvest? There is no one size fits all answer, and we are not the only organisms with a stake. Our stake in these mushrooms are rather insignificant compared to organisms that may exclusively live and feed on Reishi mushrooms, if you ask me… It is natural for us to participate.
Going back to the original question, the role of Reishi in nature… We must accept that we are not always able to determine the relevance or identify all of the stakeholders in this web of life. Everything we do has a butterfly effect.
If nothing else, never take more than 50% of the mushrooms from the trees you find and remember to be patient and harvest 0% of them until each individual specimen has dropped its spores.
The other thing…
Take note of the fact that Reishi often comes from the dead trunks of 350 to 400+ year old trees. If you own forested land, and you have trees that fall, why not allow them to lay there? It’s one thing if it falls on the road. But we don’t need to ‘clean’ the woods.
We don’t need to clear cut land. We don’t need to value land solely based on the value of its timber and remain stuck in a toxic cycle in which large old growth trees are cut down and removed, only to grow back to commercially viable sizes and then be cut once again and again and again. 400 years is a long time.
Most Reishi foragers are good ambassadors of the land (in our experience) and we try hard to teach those who demonstrate behaviors misaligned with their own best interests. At the same time, it will be more productive for Reishi if scrutiny is placed where it is most crucial. Protect old trees, allow young trees to become old, embrace a diversified approach to forest management, and allow fallen trees to decompose on their own if their removal is unnecessary.