Oyster mushrooms from Full Circle Fungi’s Logan Square grow room Credit: courtesy justin smurawa

Early this fall I zeroed in on a flash of orange out of the corner of my eye, perched on the gray bark of a large oak tree just off the intersection of Hamlin and Irving Park. I couldn’t believe my luck. It was a Laetiporus sulphureus, aka a chicken of the woods mushroom, fruiting directly across the street from Independence Park. I snapped a photo and confirmed the ID with a fungi-foraging friend, and by lunch I had it sliced up in a saute pan, sizzling in butter. A chicken of the woods really does taste like chicken, but what I couldn’t detect were any heavy metals the fungus may or may not have picked up from the tree, a giant thriving in Chicago’s historically toxic urban substrate. That doesn’t mean they weren’t there.

Mushrooms can break down and bioremediate lots of pollutants and contaminants, but they accumulate heavy metals, which is why some foragers don’t recommend overconsuming city mushrooms, as I learned later. Welp. One surely wouldn’t hurt.

I’ve been finding mushrooms in unusual places everywhere this year. There was a surprise gift delivery of foraged morels early this spring from a generous friend. And a few weeks ago I found a large flush of oyster mushrooms stacked on an elm towering over the parkway of a quiet Albany Park street. 

I sent photos of these for confirmation to Justin Smurawa of Full Circle Fungi, whose mushrooms I found on Instagram not long before that. His Blue, PoHu, and Black Pearl King oysters, along with Lion’s Mane, Turkey Tail, and reishi, are clean and metal-free because they fruit in the controlled environment of his 100-square-foot Logan Square basement grow room.

Maybe it’s coincidence—or maybe it’s an inherently fungal phenomenon—but amid the growing national movement toward decriminalization of psilocybin, it seems like fungi of all varieties are in ascendance in western culture. In Chicago within the last two years, two large indoor mushroom farms have sprouted up. Windy City Mushroom in Humboldt Park just opened a retail storefront to sell its Pioppinos, Chestnuts, and oysters, and while Logan Square’s Four Star Mushrooms sells directly to chefs, you can buy 11 of their varieties directly from Local Foods. These growers join the Wisconsin-based River Valley Farm, the longrunning farmers market stalwart with a restaurant and retail outlet in Ravenswood.

Smurawa and a few friends are planning something different with Full Circle Fungi: a worker-owned mushroom-growing co-op, whose democratized antihierarchical profit-sharing model aligns with the actual growth process of fungi itself. From his Instagram: “Nothing of this world happens in a vacuum. All things, living and dead, are connected. Fungi are a great teacher in showing us how from death, new life emerges. How like the hidden mycelial web, we can connect with one another, sharing our resources for mutual benefit of one another and the collective.”

Full Circle Fungi was spawned when Smurawa and some friends were hanging out at a cabin “just doing nature stuff.” After ingesting a particularly potent variety of exotic mushroom, he had a “profound experience centering on a rediscovery of connection to nature, and understanding how we’re still plugged into nature, despite humanity’s best efforts to separate itself. That really piqued my interest in terms of what fungi have to teach us. When you ask mushroom growers, I’d be willing to bet four out of five people have similar experiences.” 

Smurawa, who later learned his Polish grandfather foraged mushrooms outside of Appleton, Wisconsin, watched YouTube videos, and read books, and started growing oyster mushrooms out of a 4-by-4 closet in his basement. “Among mushroom farmers there’s a really beautiful community of knowledge-sharing and cooperation, which also really exemplifies how fungi work in nature itself.”

He explains how mushrooms are merely the sexual reproductive organs of the entire fungal biomass, while mycelium, its unseen threadlike root structure (for lack of a better word) acts as kind of an earthly Internet, interweaving in and among the roots of trees and plants, sharing nutrients, breaking down pollutants, and even acting as an early warning system for oncoming diseases and pests.

Over the years his grow room expanded to its current size, and while Smurawa sold mushrooms and tinctures to friends, it wasn’t until late September that he went live on Instagram @fullcirclefungi offering freshly harvested edible mushrooms by the half pound, inoculated and grown on sterilized blocks of sawdust and soybean hulls. “The ultimate goal is for people to understand the importance and benefit of incorporating mushrooms into a regular diet and making them accessible to everyone.” To that end he presents pro mushroom workshops, most recently one on home cultivation to Advocates for Urban Agriculture, to whom he prepped and distributed 100 grow kits.

Meanwhile he and his fellow co-op members have been working with the food incubator the Hatchery, developing the business model and preparing to scale up to the restaurant and retail market. In a month or so they’ll begin offering medicinal tinctures made from antioxidant-rich Turkey Tail and reishi mushrooms, both believed to have immune-boosting and anticancer (among other) properties. He’s also working with other growers to make their spent growing medium available to community gardens as compost, where its remnant active mycelium can help remediate polluted soil.

Smurawa, who usually purchases his mushroom cultures from a Maine-based mycelium library, also cloned a few of the elm oysters I gave him a few weeks ago, and before long he expects to offer a truly local Chicago mushroom. “Once you start diving into working with cultures it provides additional intrigue and nuance when you’re actually able to cultivate a variety of mushroom that came from your backyard or your neighborhood.” 

I ate the rest of the oysters from that tree myself, toxins be damned, but when his clones are ready, they’ll be heavy metal-free.   v