Making Mushroom Paper
by Fungi Perfecti
Did you know that paper can be made from mushrooms? The cell walls of fungi are made of a biological polymer called chitin, which is a similar to cellulose—the key ingredient in plant-based paper. The use of cellulose fibers from plant material for making paper was first developed in China in the 1st century C.E. Before the invention of paper, important information was written on various other materials such as clay tablets, metal tablets, papyrus, and animal skins. The art of fiber paper spread from China to Japan in the 6th century and eventually to Europe in the 10th century. By the 19th, century paper production was fully mechanized with papers and books becoming widely available. In our modern era, paper is used for all types of consumer items including newspaper, packing material, bags, boxes, and single-use coffee cups to name just a few.
In the 1970s, scientists and environmentalists became interested in alternative fiber sources for paper production. Pioneering research in this field led to the production of paper from the shells of shrimp. Shrimp shells are made from chitin which is similar to the chitin in fungi. This discovery led Miriam Rice, who was working with mushrooms making dyes, to experiment with mushroom-based papers. Miriam knew that fungi are also made from chitin. She tried and successfully made beautiful artisan papers from various types of fungi, particularly wood conks. Miriam Rice has written several excellent books on mushroom dyes and mushroom paper and has great advice on making paper for beginners or accomplished fungal artisans.
Various species of fungi that grow on trees can make attractive and usable paper. Trametes versicolor (Turkey Tail), Ganoderma species, and Fomitopsis species are all good choices for making paper. These hard, woody, tree-dwelling fungi have good qualities for making paper—the fibers are strong and durable and hold up well to dyeing and inks.
There are a few ways to get wood conks for making paper: purchasing, wildcrafting (the sustainable harvesting of forest plants), and cultivating. Ganoderma lucidum, also known as “Reishi” or “Ling Chi”, can often be purchased in Asian grocery stores or Chinese herb shops. These stores may also carry other woody polypore species that will make great paper. Alternatively, you can go into the forest and wildcraft wood conks for your home paper mill. If you don’t live near the forest, many of these species can be grown at home either outdoors on logs or indoors in bags. Both Ganoderma lucidum and Trametes versicolor can easily be grown on logs by hobbyists using inoculated dowels (plug spawn) or on a larger scale using sawdust inoculum. Small-scale indoor cultivation using mushroom kits is also an option if you don’t have logs or an outdoor growing space. If you are fortunate enough to have an indoor growing room then you can quickly mass-produce mushrooms from inoculated blocks of either Ganoderma lucidum or Trametes versicolor and have control over some qualities of the mushrooms. Once you have your mushrooms from wildcrafting, indoor or outdoor cultivation, proper drying is important to preserve them for long-term use.
A small-scale mushroom paper operation can be fairly easy to assemble as there are only a few necessary pieces of equipment. Most importantly, paper making is a wet art and needs to be done in a space where water is available and can be used without fear of messy activities. A blender is also needed to pulverize the mushroom to pulp. Once pulped, you will need a tub to hold water and pulped fiber slurry, a mold and deckle to lift and shape a film of pulp out of the slurry, and sheets of fabric to absorb the excess water from the paper sheet on the mold. The paper sheet is then pressed flat and slowly dried to retain its flat profile.
Making paper from fungi at home can be a fun and rewarding project. It can be a focus for wildcrafting and is a good activity do with children and classes. Paper making can be a fairly easy activity for almost everyone and simple low-tech equipment is all that is needed. It can help you to learn a few mushroom species as well as make beautiful functional art! There are very few books or guides to mushroom paper making, but Miriam Rice’s book Mushrooms for Dyes, Paper, Pigments and Myco-Stix™ is an excellent resource with plenty of information to guide you successfully through making mushroom paper using fungi in your local area. With a little practice and effort, artisan mushroom paper can be made and enjoyed.
As Fungi Perfecti’s first employee, David Sumerlin has worked extensively and integrally in all aspects of mushroom cultivation and biotechnology. When David is not teaching seminars, making mushroom paper or traveling to Eastern Europe to learn the secrets of traditional mushroom hat making, he is working tirelessly to help develop the next generation of fungal pesticides for organic treatment of insects ranging from bedbugs to termites.