One of the most fascinating things about mushrooms is their incredible diversity.
They are second only to insects in this regard, and the mushrooms that have been identified and catalogued so far are believed to represent just a small percentage of the vast—and ever-evolving—fungi kingdom.
This broad spectrum runs along mushroom family and species lines, as well (of which there are an estimated 14,000). One of the most common of these: The oyster mushroom. Its family has 202 known species.
As the name would suggest, oyster mushrooms are distinctive for their oyster or shell-like caps, short, stubby stems, and “decurrent” gills attached to and running down their stems.
And, while they grow naturally across the world in clusters on dead or dying hardwood trees, they are easily cultivated on substrates such as sawdust or straw. Because of this adaptability and their quick-growing quality, they are one of the most widely consumed mushrooms in the world.
They are also one of the few carnivorous mushrooms, releasing chemicals that attract nematodes (roundworms). What’s more, because they help decompose wood rather than feed off of it, they contribute to the cycle of regrowth. This unique quality shows great promise for bioremediation, or breaking down environmental pollutants in water, soil, and subsurface material.
As for their medicinal qualities, they have been used to treat infections, cancer, diabetes, and to help lower cholesterol.
Amazing, right? Here are the most common types of oyster mushrooms:
The archetype when people think of oyster mushrooms: Off-white (some would say oyster-colored) with large, round or oval downward-curved caps. Fast-growing, heavily-fruiting and widely cultivated, they are the most prevalent oyster mushroom, particularly in North America.
The pins on these mushrooms start out a brilliant naval blue. However, as their broad caps expand, that color fades to a bluish-gray starkly offset by white stems. Closely resembling the Pearl in size and shape, they are found in the wild throughout North America, particularly thriving in cold, high-oxygen environments.
This is undoubtedly one of the physical standouts of the oyster family: Astonishingly, flamingo-like pink with fluttery stems that, in a cluster, resemble a bouquet of flowers. They are a fast-growing variety partial to warmer climates.
This bears more resemblance to its pink cousin than other oysters: It is vividly yellow with wispy, delicate caps. Another distinction is its citrusy aroma. And while it is native to Japan and parts of Russia and China, it has more recently made its way to the U.S.—leading some to consider it an invasive species.
A twin, of sorts, of the Pearl, only with smaller, paler caps and a longer stem. It is considered a true “summer oyster,” as it thrives in warm weather.
This variety is vastly different in appearance than its cousins. It is named for its “regal” look: Its off-white fruiting bodies grow singly, rather than in clusters, and have robust, thick stems with smaller, shelf-like caps. Native to the Mediterranean Basin, India, central Europe, Northern Africa and western Asia, its distinctive shape varies depending on the amount of light and carbon dioxide.
Now that you are familiar with oyster mushrooms, you can enjoy their many benefits (whether that be medicinal, nutritional, or by exercising your “brown thumb”)!