Tag Archives: fire ecology


Growing Mushrooms and Cleaning the Forest at Lake Seminole

Mushrooms are one of the few foods we eat that are neither plant or animal. We trek to Lake Seminole Farm, where two men took a chance and have started a mushroom growing operation. In looking at how mushrooms grow, we get an unexpected lesson in forest ecology.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV
Lake Seminole Farm grows shiitake mushrooms (pictured in the banner image above) and pink oyster mushrooms.

Lake Seminole farm grows shiitake mushrooms (pictured in the banner image above) and pink oyster mushrooms.

Mushrooms are a food with a mystique about them.  They’re like oysters or sushi.  There are serious enthusiasts willing to spend good money on certain varieties; others are repulsed at the thought of them.  Think of the possible outcomes of trying a random mushroom found in the woods.  You discover amazing flavor.  You become sick.  You die.  You take an unexpected mystic voyage into the depths of your psyche.  This is not a food that is like the other food you eat, and so it makes sense that a mushroom farm doesn’t exactly look like most other farms.

Lake Seminole Farm grows shiitake and oyster mushrooms (I love the symmetry of the Apalachicola River- the body of water to its south has oysters, the body of water to its north has oyster mushrooms).  David Krause studied fungi at FSU and USF, part of a career path that led to his being Florida’s state toxicologist from 2008 through 2011.  In 2011, he took a chance and decided to put his land to work.  Living on Lake Seminole, his property has the dense tangle of hardwoods that you find on a floodplain.  Those oak and gum trees are perfect for growing shiitake mushrooms.  But the farm doesn’t exclusively use logs gathered on the property.

Rather than deforest the hillside sloping into the Flint River side of the lake, he and Lake Seminole Farm co-owner Breck Dalton remove hardwoods from where they are least welcome.  In a longleaf pine forest, hardwoods should burn down before growing to the size that David and Breck need.  Tall Timbers’ Jim Cox, who took us into the Big Woods for EcoShakespeare, showed us last summer what a longleaf forest looks like when burned at one, two, and three year intervals.  As he and fellow Tall Timbers biologist Kim Sash showed the WFSU/ Mag Lab SciGirls, too many years without burning can crowd the understory with hardwood trees.  There’s a point where the trees get too big to be burned down; David and Breck offer a service to their neighbors while benefitting their farm.  It’s an elegant solution.


Jonathan (L) fills holes with shiitake spawn sawdust while Breck preps another log for drilling. After the holes are filled, they are sealed with wax to keep the sawdust moist.

Once the logs are cut, they sit for thirty days while their immune systems die.  Then, they enter the work shed, where holes are drilled in them and filled with mushroom-spawn-innoculated sawdust.  To speed production, the logs are force flushed- dunked in ice water, essentially.  The emptied bags of ice are then filled with inoculated straw and seeded with oyster mushroom spawn.

I knew that when I decided to feature a mushroom farm, I would see a different type of agriculture.  I didn’t expect it to be such a lesson in the ways a forest creates space.  Mushrooms feed on and break down logs.  Fire clears out hardwoods (and when it doesn’t, someone might have a use for them somewhere else).  Animals graze on the understory.  Nature knows how to take care of itself, and humans figure out how to manipulate nature to maintain the land and grow our food.

Foraging for Mushrooms

Mushrooms come in many shapes, sizes, and colors.  Many are toxic.  Approach mushroom foraging with caution.

Mushrooms come in many shapes, sizes, and colors. Many are toxic. Approach mushroom foraging with caution.

David says that there are edible mushrooms growing naturally on the property, notably orange chanterelles (shiitakes and oyster mushrooms are not native fungi).  He enjoys foraging for mushrooms on he and his and neighbors’ properties.  Foraging for mushrooms is dangerous, however, if you don’t have the right knowledge.  He encourages people interested in foraging for mushrooms to find an experienced mentor or foraging club.

Trying a variety of Google searches, all I have found are that a lot of people are interested in finding a club locally, but with no luck (maybe I should go through all of those forums and find a way to connect all those people with each other).  There is an online community of sorts in the following of the Crawfordville based Florida Fungi Facebook page.  The page is maintained by Bill Petty, a UF IFAS certified master gardener and one-time president of the Sarracenia chapter (Wakulla County) of the Florida Native Plant Society.  People routinely post pictures of mushrooms they find for identification help.

Odds and Ends

  • David has Tennessee fainting goats eating the brush on his property.  If you can’t get enough fainting goat footage, check out our visit to Golden Acres Ranch last fall.
  • Lake Seminole is a reservoir lake created by the Jim Woodruff Dam at the confluence of the Flint and Chattahoochee rivers.  From the dam flows the Apalachicola River.  The river and the amount of water flowing from that dam are frequent topics on this blog.
  • Wet conditions are favorable for mushroom spawning, but they won’t sprout until after it stops raining.  I’m starting to see quite a few in my yard from the relative break in rain we’ve had this week.
  • The hunt leases and timber plots where they gather logs have been certified USDA organic, and so are the mushrooms produced at the farm.
  • Tall Timbers Research Station’s fire ecologist, Dr. Kevin Robertson, makes a brief appearance in the video above to explain the importance of burning longleaf habitat and why hardwoods need to be burned out of it.  The shots I use to illustrate the biodiversity of which he speaks come from the aforementioned Big Woods.  The Big Woods is an old growth forest, of which only 8,000 acres remain from the historic 90,000,000 acre coastal plain forest (there are 3,000,000 acres of longleaf habitat left in the country, but most has been cut and replanted).  If you want to see what the habitat should look like, watch that EcoShakespeare segment.  I cannot overstate what a priveledge it was to get footage of those ancient woods.
Biodiversity in the understory of the Big Woods.

Biodiversity in the understory of the Big Woods.

Purple pitcher plant flower

Video: Liberty County’s Carnivorous Plants are Colorful and Deadly

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

Wildlife watching is big business in Florida. In a state with the unique natural resources we have, that’s no surprise. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has determined that it brings, more or less, $5 Billion to Florida a year. When we say wildlife watching, we usually mean birds and butterflies. Animals that are cute, colorful, and/ or ferocious. What Eleanor Dietrich wants you to consider is that wildlife watching could also mean wildflowers. And just as it is thrilling to watch an eagle or a heron catch a fish, carnivorous plants might be the most thrilling of wildflowers. Luckily for those in our area, the Apalachicola National Forest in Liberty County is a hot spot for these strange and beautiful killers.

Eleanor Dietrich

Eleanor Dietrich holds one of her free self-guided Liberty County Wildflower tour guides. She has several local businesses distributing these with the idea that wildflower populations could benefit the local economy.

State Road 65 between Hosford and Sumatra is unofficially the Liberty County Wildflower Trail.   For many, this is the scenic route to St. George Island.  What Eleanor wants people to do is to pull over every once in a while to notice the incredible life peeking through the top of the grass growing on the shoulder.  She has enlisted local businesses to help distribute free self-guided tour maps, and helped create a partnership between Tallahassee Artist Helen Dull and Pam Richter, owner of T&P Florist and Gift Shop in Hosford.  Helen’s renditions of carnivorous flowers grace shirts, tote bags, and post cards at the T&P.

Here are some things to keep in mind if you’re interested in seeing these flowers, though I admit we’re past their peak period:

  • It’s seasonal.  Just as certain hummingbirds pass through the St. Marks Refuge in late spring, certain flowers bloom at a certain time every year.  The Chapman’s rhododendron usually blooms for a couple of weeks in March.  Carnivorous plants in and around the Apalachicola National Forest start blooming in April and go through early May.  Another set of wildflowers explodes there in the fall.
  • You never know what you’ll see.  If you go birding, you’re not guaranteed to see any specific bird.  It’s the same with these flowers.  When we got there, the yellow trumpet pitcher plants had lost their flowers, but their remarkable pitcher leaves retained their strong presence in the woody tangle surrounding the New River.  Purple pitcher plants were going strong and the dewthread sundews were just beginning to flower.  In a week, it would look entirely different.  These flowers bloom in waves, and there’s no fixing a specific date on when they’ll start.
  • White topped pitcher plantLocation, location, location.  We went to three different spots within a twenty mile range: two roadside locations and one further into National Forest.  One roadside spot had non native Venus flytraps and showy white topped pitcher plants (pictured to the left), the only place where we saw them.  In the forest, we saw an abundance of yellow trumpet leaves and of the sticky dewthread strands getting ready to flower.  At the second roadside spot, we had to do a little searching to find the carnivorous plants among the wildflowers.
  • It helps to dress appropriately.  The day before our shoot, FSU Biologist Dr. Tom Miller, who accompanied us, warned me to wear closed toed shoes.  You’ll see why in the video.  He also suggested a long sleeved shirt to minimize gnat biteage and that I spray that nasty bug spray on my socks to discourage ticks.  The best places to see the really cool plants and critters aren’t always comfortable.

Some Science Stuff to Impress Your Friends

When you go out to look at the flowers with your friends, you’ll want to drop some biology knowledge on them.  You know, to sound smart.  This is what Dr. Miller, who is smart about these things, told me, who is working on it:

  • Carnivorous plants are found in what are known as a ecotones.  Ecotones are the spaces where one ecosystem overlaps with another.  The Apalachicola National Forest has some well maintained longleaf pine/ wiregrass habitat, with the characteristic wide spacing of trees.  Through the trees you may see dense tangles of wood surrounding rivers or other wet places.  Carnivorous plants can be found in the seam between the two.
  • As you may know, all life needs nitrogen (if you didn’t know, Dr. David Kimbro broke it down for us last year).  Plants usually get it from the soil, where bacteria can convert it into a useable form (David explains it better than I do), and where decomposing plants add to it as well.  Animals get their nitrogen from plants.  The bogs where carnivorous plants grow have soils that are low in nutrients.  The plants get their nutrients from the bugs they eat.
  • Controlled burn in the Apalachicola National Forest

    A controlled burn on S.R. 65 on the day of our shoot.

    Carnivorous plants are dependent on fire ecology.  More specifically, they are dependent on disturbances to clear spaces for them.  Longleaf pines maintain their spacing through regular fire.  It clears the forest floor of oak and other woody plants and makes space for wiregrass and succulent plants.  That fire also clears a space at the fringe of the forest, where the pretty killer flowers live.  Annual mowing along highway 65 also helps.  The spot where we saw the white tops and Venus flytraps had a crew go through in recent months, installing telephone poles.

  • These flowers are pretty resilient.  They need wet conditions, but during the harsh droughts of the last fifteen years, Dr. Miller observed their numbers decline.  “I was concerned about losing the population,” he said, “instead, they seem to be pretty resilient to drought.”  That makes sense for plants that get burned and re-sprout.
  • One thing that Dr. Miller studies, and I think this is pretty cool, are these food webs contained entirely within the leaves of pitcher plants.  At the bottom of the food web are the decomposing bugs caught in the leaves.  Bacteria break them down and they are eaten by single celled protozoa.  Those are in turn eaten by mosquito larvae, which we of course find in any pool of standing water.


Pitcher plant leaf samples

Samples taken from pitcher plants along S.R. 65. The one on the right is from a newer leaf, and is swimming with mosquito larvae. The one on the left has mostly the undigestable remains of ants, where as the one in the middle has both larvae and still edible insect remains.

For more information on carnivorous plants in our area, this web site featuring Eleanor’s photos is pretty helpful.

A bee on our camera

Where there are flowers, there are bees. Our next EcoAdventure will feature more flowers and many more bees. We’re heading to the Dead Lakes, where the tupelo are in bloom and honey is getting made.

Music in the piece by pitx and Greg Baumont.

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