We’ve got quite a treat for you today, dear readers! Tyler is visiting from Chicken Mushrooms to tell us about his great SCOBY search. If you don’t already know Tyler, his site is definitely worth checking out. A serious fungi aficionado, he’s been experimenting with the cultivation of certain varieties of mushroom that haven’t yet been cultivated. You can and should track his progress and adventures on his site! Super interesting stuff. I was lucky enough to meet Tyler (a real fun guy) through Indy Hall’s amazing den mother, Adam Tetrus. He thought we might have a few things to discuss. Smart guy, that Adam.
Contrary to what we usually encourage here at Phickle, please follow Tyler’s directive to NOT try this at home! This is a fascinating, beautiful story of culturing, and a project better left the the fungi experts like Tyler.
For you mycophiles out there, Tyler took a brief video of his foraging adventure. You can check it out on YouTube by clicking this link. Enjoy!
One afternoon in July I was enjoying a glass of herb-infused kombucha, reveling in the fact that I was ingesting living cells whose progenitors had existed in culture for centuries, perhaps longer.
Where did that first Mother come from? Who was this Mother of all Mothers, this beautifully slimy and filmy Eve?
Unlike her biblical namesake, when this Eve was first cast forth from her Garden and into the chalice of an adventurous tea-drinker, it’s unlikely that all of her made it out. She must still be out there, thriving in her native land as radiant and globular as the day she was discovered.
Kombucha first arose in Eastern Asia, somewhere between Siberia and Japan. Russians, Chinese, Koreans, and Japanese all claim that they were the first to culture her. We’ll never know for sure.
I decided to search for Eve, not in Asia, but in Pennsylvania. I thought perhaps she is ubiquitous, hiding away in any suitable niche that will sustain her microbial plumes. Even if Eve is absent from this continent, maybe her sister is here, lurking about in a bog or under a rock. Perhaps there’s an altogether different complex of microbes in our own backyard that will give us Kombucha 2.0, just in time to meet the growing demand for kombucha and other fermented treasures at home.
Where would one look for Eve? Well, we know she has a sweet tooth. And we know that, although she isn’t a mushroom, the name “Manchurian Mushroom” has stuck, so maybe there’s something to that. Might she be hanging out in a mushroom?
Hiking in the woods one day in August- Images of hypothetical Eves playing in my mind- I stumbled upon a bewildering set of phenomena playing out in a Beech tree. Above me, snowflakes were dancing on a limb. At my feet, a gray sooty splotch was covering the dead leaves. Looking around for an answer, I noticed a blob clinging to a root. “What the hell is going on here?”
Every summer, boogie-woogie aphids, so named for the way they shake their waxen tailfeathers, line up along the branches of Fagus grandifolia, our American Beech. The nymphs look more like dancing snowflakes than tiny insects, but when you look closely you can see the tiny aphids underneath their fancy plumage, suckling blissfully at the beech sap.
The aphid nymphs extract nitrogen from the sap, along with some carbohydrates. What’s leftover after they get their fix is a very sweet, condensed substance called honeydew, a favorite treat of forest bugs. In some parts of the world, ants have co-evolved with aphids, offering them protection in exchange for their sweet excrement. The patches I’ve seen are frequented by yellowjackets, but also an unusual suspect: the Scorias spongiosa fungus.
When honeydew begins to collect beneath the aphid colonies, spores from the scorias spongiosa land on these nutrient-rich surfaces and germinate, eventually carpeting the mighty beech’s footprint in a sooty “mold”. As the fungus grows, fed by a steady rain of honeydew, it produces an asexual, vegetative fruitbody which produces asexual spores (conidia) and eventually sexual spores. It is as bizarre a lifeform as one could imagine: a moist, spongy blob fed by aphid poop slowly morphing into a mass of spores. Appetizing?
One might think these blobs are gross, festering with all kinds of nasties which will quickly break down the tissue, leaving a pile of mush. But, to my surprise, these blobs are persistent things. Even after a month, when completely matured and colored black by spore deposits, they still held their form and smelled…
..they smelled good. Kind of like… kombucha. Fresh, bright, a little sour, but mild. Not unlike a nice a bottle of champagne the day after the celebration. Could Eve be hiding inside the blob? There’s only one way to find out.
In anticipation of finding another blob, I obtained some Beech Forest Honeydew Honey from Amazon. This seemed the closest thing to the fungus’ meal of choice- the only difference being that honeybees act as an intermediary between the aphid’s pooper and the fungus. Add water, sterilize, and in go the blobs.
After several days, I peeked into the vials. “Is that a SCOBY? Say it’s so!” The smell was enticing, peach-like. A week went by, then a month. This time the smell was too enticing. In the name of science, I took a swig (kids do NOT try this at home). “Tastes like Kombucha, but dare I say, better!” An hour went by, then a day. No funky GI issues.
With the vials of pale liquid bubbling away promisingly next to my bed, I fell asleep, dreaming of conquest. My fleet and I sailed across the Pacific towing an enormous bottle. We stormed the beach where Eve and her sisters lived and captured her, forcing her into the bottle and corking her in with an old palm tree. We rode the bottle home, drunk on pride and bad rum.
I woke up, grabbed the vials and ran to my lab. Carefully, I extracted two tiny biofilms and transferred them to jars of honeydew water. Then I waited, expecting to see a giant mother any day.
After two weeks, it was clear a kombucha mother wasn’t coming. I tasted some of the new potion Shocked, I realized I’d had a Mother, but not the right one.
Mother of Vinegar. A strong vinegar. Humbled and puckered, I returned to my remaining vials. They’d remained more or less the same. No invading molds. Still the same healthy looking film covering. And the bubble-filled blobs as fresh looking as the day they were plucked. I took a taste, thinking I may have misjudged the taste the first time I braved a swig, expecting the same enamel-melting acid.
Surprisingly, the taste was pleasant, as I’d remembered it. Tart, but less acidic than the vinegar I had inadvertently produced. It seems I had made a critical mistake when I’d transferred the culture from the vials to the jars. I left the blob behind. With the blob and vinegar culture working in tandem, the result is a tangy drink worthy of further experimentation. And after drinking it, I must say, I feel good. Like I-just-drank-Kombucha good.
My dreams of conquering Eve had been dashed for a season. But in my pursuit of her, I’d learned something besides humility – that there’s a fungus that can survive liquid immersion, acidic conditions, and produce metabolic compounds that taste darn good. Not a romantic new discovery, but an informative stumble nonetheless.
As it turns out, I wasn’t the first one to believe in the blob. A high school student from Long Island successfully isolated the potent anti-bacterial/fungal compound scoriosin from the fungus. This compound is highly active against candida- so if you’re into cleansing, take note.
If there’s a lesson to take away from this, it’s that medicinal compounds excreted from fungi (the extracellular metabolites and enzymes that fight off infection) can be harnessed in ways that are low-tech, efficient, and delicious. In most fungi, the mycelium is what produces these compounds, but in the case of scorias spongiosa, it is the spore-producing material itself (evidenced by the extreme longevity of the blob in the wild). One doesn’t need a lab to capture these compounds, only sterile sugar water and some fungal tissue, thanks to the innate bacteria and mold resistance. Still, the jury is out on what else may be in such a brew, so hold tight before filling your cupboard with beakers of blobs. In short, don’t eat questionable mushrooms or mysterious liquids. In even shorter, don’t do what I did.
There’s another lesson here: that high school kids, and even younger, can make important discoveries- like Ailish did. Members of our species, when we get old, can lose touch with our imagination. Everything takes imagination, including science. But no matter what we can dream up, the imagination of Nature, with its dancing snowflakes, honeydew and jiggly blobs, is always the most creative.
keep searching for those scoby snacks (had to say it)