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Putting the "Fun" in Fungus

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Here's something you probably didn't know: The world's largest living creature is a colony of mushrooms in the forest of eastern Oregon. It measures more than 2,200 acres, or roughly three times the size of Rush Limbaugh. And mushrooms taste better on pizza.

Yet mushrooms make some people uncomfortable. Perhaps because they are members of the fungus kingdom, or because they're often pale and fleshy, and thrive where the sun rarely visits -- also like Rush Limbaugh.   

So who better than the folks at Phipps Conservatory to offer a crash-course in mushroom appreciation and cultivation? At its Mellon Park Garden Center on Oct. 28, Phipps offers a two-hour primer on how to grow edible mushrooms for use in your own kitchen. Participants get a starter kit to grow a crop of oyster mushrooms, a particularly hardy and adaptable species. 

Juliette Jones, an education specialist in sustainable programs with Phipps, says the class "goes along with our interest in environmental sustainability. We've got an expanded edible garden in the works, and our café is using a lot of local fresh food. We're starting permaculture classes as well, and we've got some herb classes this fall." 

Taught by local mushroom exponent Jim Tunney, the class explores the mushroom life cycle, how mushrooms propagate and how best to grow them. Depending on temperature and other conditions, Tunney says, your starter kit should produce edible mushrooms within a month. (Though he cautions "it's always best to be careful with mushrooms." For one thing, people who grow them can become allergic to the spores.) 

Tunney himself doesn't often grow mushrooms for food: Aesthetics are just as important, as is the challenge of growing a rare or difficult species. "I'm always looking for a pretty mushroom," he says. "I grew one -- Pholiota aurivella -- that appeared on some apple logs. It's a sort of yellowish-orange mushroom that I took a clone of and then [grew] on a bunch of stuff, like sawdust and cardboard, just for fun."

If it's hard to imagine collecting fungi the way other people collect roses, well ... just try topping your next pizza with flowers.

Introduction to Mushroom Cultivation: 7- 9 p.m., Thu., Oct. 28. $25 for Phipps members; $35 for non-members. Phipps Garden Center in Mellon Park, 1059 Shady Ave., Shadyside. Reserve a slot at 412-441-4442.

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