Medicinal fungi at Ora’s Farm

Lion’s Mane, Turkey Tail, Piopinno, Enoki, Shiitake. Intriguing names for delicious mushrooms that science is revealing are beneficial to our health. Crispin Calidicott talks to two growers who are excited about their therapeutic potential.
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Itay and Ora Simhony came to mushrooms from very different backgrounds. Itay had been a naval architect in Israel and worked within the marine industry for 30 years, while Ora had enjoyed a long teaching career. Both had reached the point in life where they wanted to do something different, and together.  

They purchased Ora’s Farm, a 12-hectare property south of Mangawhai described as ‘a real treasure full of useful old sheds’, and decided to investigate fungi. An overseas holiday included visits to mushroom farms which further sparked their enthusiasm. “In terms of biology and technology we decided we had the skills between us for a good foundation,” Itay stated.  

First, they had to decide – truffles or mushrooms? Truffles fetch high prices in almost any market but are slow and rather tricky to produce and not valued for their therapeutic qualities. In contrast, mushrooms grow quickly and their medicinal properties have a potential Itay and Ora felt worth pursuing – if only to ensure readily available supplies for further research. They decided to specialise in the delicate oyster mushrooms but have extended their range to include Shitake, Enoki, Pioppino, Lion’s Mane, and Turkey Tail. 

Recent research is showing exciting potential for Lion’s Mane (Hericium erinaceus), aptly named after its mane-like shape. Research have shown its benefits include improved brain function and dementia control.  

Studies conducted in 2014 on the gloriously coloured Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor) have shown it boosts the immune system – recharging it after chemotherapy and assisting the fight against cancer cells.  

In Chinese traditional medicine, Pioppino mushrooms are used for their anti-inflammatory properties and to help reduce nauseousness and symptoms of fever.  

Shiitake mushrooms have been used in Asian cuisine for centuries and are considered medicinal.  

“That is what continues to encourage us as growers,” said Itay and Ora. “We can see the potential to improve lives both before and after medical treatment. We aim to introduce people to the benefits of mushrooms to help them be healthier.”  

Research into the best medium for commercially producing mushrooms is ongoing, but one of the big advantages of Ora’s Farm is the availability of willow trees. The types of mushrooms Itay and Ora are growing are the fruit of the fungi’s mycelium. In the wild, these favour the rotting logs of the oak family and can take a year or more to reach maturity. Itay points out oak supply is limited in New Zealand, and he bemoans the proliferation of pine plantations which are useless for their mushrooms. “Deciduous trees are essential for the energy they store to feed the mushrooms and we’ve found willow is the best available alternative to oak.” 

At Ora’s Farm, they have accelerated the process of growing, it takes about a month to grow a crop. This involves creating an artificial ‘log’ out of willow mulch, sterilising it in a big pressure cooker, inoculating it with the desired species, and then nurturing it in ideal growing conditions. Nutrients and moisture within the log are essential for optimum growth – a precise but organic recipe. As most fungi reproduce via airborne spores, other fungi, of which there are around five million species, are the main enemy to success.  

After more than six years of trial and error, Ora and Itay are in it for the long haul. “If we’d done this for financial reasons we took a very wrong turn,” Itay jokes.  

“It is labour intensive, but we produce our mushrooms to exacting standards with no outside input or chemicals. Many top Auckland chefs love them, and we are always at Mangawhai and Matakana Farmers’ Markets. People are welcome to drop into our farm too, and any anecdotal or scientific knowledge they can add to our mission will be gratefully absorbed.” 

Itay and Ora Simhony with their assistant Lachlan surrounded by Lion’s Mane mushrooms. Ora is holding a Pioppino.

Crispin Caldicott is a journalist, writer, editor, tour guide and tram driver. He juggles these multiple roles in life with a small property on the Kaipara Harbour, planted with olive trees to which he plays Mozart and Beethoven.

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