Southwest Florida’s Flourishing Functional Fungi

These local growers offer ways to nourish your body and mind—one mushroom at a time.

BY June 29, 2023
functional mushrooms superfood
(Photo by Anna Nguyen)

Mushrooms are having a moment—on TV; in decor and fashion through T-shirts embroidered with sayings such as ‘I have good morels’ and ‘Let that shiitake go;’ in white-tablecloth restaurants, and on farms. In recent years, growers have been maximizing fungi’s anti-carcinogenic, anti-inflammatory and immune-boosting properties by harvesting ever-rarer varieties.

And, it’s no wonder: Nutrient-rich functional mushrooms are touted for their ability to ward off chronic disease, and the myriad varieties offer targeted benefits. We talked to three local mycologists who share some of their favorite fungi for supercharged health.

Reishi from Care2Grow, Naples

Former carpenter Russell Hollander started growing mushrooms more than a decade ago. He’d bought a growing kit for a friend as a present, stashed it in a closet for two weeks, and when he went to deliver the offering, he found the mushrooms were already sprouting. He harvested a second flush, and thought, ‘This was fun.’ Then, he fell down the fungal rabbit hole.

Reishi was one of the first medical varieties to catch his attention. More than 2,000 years ago, Chinese healers called reishi the ‘elixir of immortality’ for its believed antiaging and healing qualities. While modern science is inconclusive, many wellness experts back the claims, thanks to reishi’s concentration of two key components: Polysaccharides, which are believed to increase white cells and immunity, and reduce the growth of blood vessels (cancer cells need blood flow to grow); and triterpenes, which are associated with lowering cholesterol and stress. The mushroom is also seen in skincare products as a moisturizer and redness soother. Russell’s drawn to the mushroom’s reported ability to regulate the immune system, helping the body when it over- or under-reacts. “We generally think of a response of our immune system as inflammation,” he says, noting how your nose might be inflamed or your throat might be sore when cells fight pathogens in those areas. Reishi can bolster those healing reactions, and it can tame the immune system when it overreacts, as in cases of arthritis and psoriasis. 

Since reishi is bitter and not exactly tasty, Russell makes the mushrooms he grows on his Care2Grow farm into extracts that you can drop into hot water, tea or coffee (heat amplifies the supplement). Since he launched the Naples farm in 2020, demand has soared. Russell  grows at least  300 pounds of mushrooms a week, delivering to restaurants like The 239 in Mercato and Nosh on Naples Bay, and selling at the Third Street Farmer’s Market in the winter. As he looks to the future, he’s most interested in expanding into mushrooms’ medicinal benefits. “Fungus is the basis of all healthy soils on the planet and provides the most nutritious food,” Russell says.

Lion’s Mane from Stropharia Mushroom Farm, Naples

Jor’El Schustrin’s infatuation with functional mushrooms started three years after his stepfather, Joseph, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. Jor’El heard a mycologist discuss the benefits of lion’s mane for aiding neurological health and encouraged his stepdad to start taking tinctures and capsules of the supplement. The plan worked: In a year and a half, his stepfather went from taking 13 pills a day to three. “Every day, it’s like I’m finding something new out,” Jor’El says of the power of ’shrooms.   

The Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation notes that lion’s mane contains compounds that could improve recognition memory and reverse age-related mental decline by promoting neural growth. Empowered by the transformative effect of fungi, Jor’El and his brother, Sheth, opened a ‘mushroom deli’ in North Naples, Stropharia Mushroom Farm (the name nods to the mushroom genus). The one-stop fungi shop sells mushrooms whole and crafted into powders, tinctures and prepared foods. Eager to spread the fungal gospel, Jor’El sometimes hosts chefs for cooking classes to teach creative ways to use mushrooms.

The versatile lion’s mane is one of his favorites for recipes. Jor’El likes to use the juicy, meaty variety battered and fried as a meat alternative for ‘chicken’ sandwiches. But, he says, lion’s mane also goes well sauteed simply on its own as a side or as a mix-in for a heartier pasta. “This is just the tip of the iceberg,” Jor’El says of the future of functional mushrooms. 

Blue Oysters from Mo’Shrooms, Cape Coral

Mo’Shrooms started after  Mike Osmulski attended a mycology class in Tennessee in 2021. Of the more than 30 species he grows, he favors blue oysters for their stunning gradient, from blueish grey to a white-gilled underbelly. Though most mushrooms carry a high nutritional value (with fiber, protein and antioxidants) and are associated with benefits like lowered cholesterol and blood sugar, improved energy, and good heart and immune health, oyster mushrooms, in particular, are chock-full of ergothioneine, an antioxidant amino acid that’s known as the ‘longevity vitamin.’ The substance is said to protect from oxidative stress (which wears out cells and leads to disease) and reduce inflammation.

The briny mushroom crisps beautifully when pan-seared and tastes good in just about any dish where you usually find  cooked mushrooms, from soups to steaks. “There’s a reason they’re so pretty,” Mike says. Though perhaps the biggest benefit he derives comes simply from growing them. “It slowed me down mentally. It’s made me a better person, watching them grow, because you have to have patience, you can’t rush a mushroom. They come at their will.”

In his Cape Coral warehouse, he grows for local buyers, such as Farmer Joe’s, a family-owned, farmers market-style grocery store on the Cape, and health-focused eatery Café YOU. When Mike delivers his mushrooms, he feels like a rockstar. “I feel like the world’s most admired person when I bring those mushrooms in because people know they’re good. The flavor is good. They know where they’re grown; they know the story behind it,” he says.

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