ROGERS PARK — Kevin Hovey has dozens of spawns of fungi — oyster, shiitake and brown beech mushroom strains, to name a few — stowed away in jars and petri dishes inside a Howard Street storage unit.
And he wants to unleash them in the yards and homes of Rogers Park.
Hovey's dream is to "empower people to learn how to grow mushrooms, and to bring something new to the whole gardening scene," said the 29-year-old Michigan native and professional gardener who has launched an effort to bring mushrooms to the masses.
So far Hovey has raised more than $4,000 with his Kickstarter campaign, titled "Mushroom Gardens for Chicago."
He said if he reaches his fundraising goal, he'd transform an apartment in the neighborhood into a lab to grow edible mushrooms and to teach others how to do it.
"I get excited because people haven't looked at mushrooms in this country," he said. The United States "has been known as a mycophobic country for the majority of its existence."
Americans have been afraid to hunt for and grow their own fungi, unlike many Europeans or Far Easterners who have used mushrooms for food and medicine for millennia, he said.
Despite the fear people might have of the unknown, or of accidentally picking a poisonous mushroom, Hovey said he sees a culture shift coming to the Midwest — and he wants to be on the front lines of the fungi revolution.
"We don’t have anything like that in Chicago," said Rebecca Fyffe, president of the Illinois Mycological Association, of Hovey's plan. "The idea to have a community-shared mushroom lab is awesome."
Fyffe said public interest in mushrooms has spread in recent years. The association's membership last year grew by 40 percent, and more people are coming out on the organization's foraging expeditions into Chicago-area woodlands, she said.
"There’s this huge uptick in interest," she added.
Andrew Given, Hovey's friend and fellow fungi fanatic, said the interest in mushrooms is about to "explode," especially for families and children.
"It’s fun to go and look for something in the woods," Given said. "And it’s fun to pick something up and ask, 'What is this?' and then have all the adults around say, 'I don’t know, let’s find out.'"
Hovey said his love for mushrooms happened just that way.
When he was a kid, he would venture with his dad into the forests surrounding Grand Rapids, Mich., in search of rare mushrooms.
"Probably one of the most exciting moments I can remember with my dad was being in the woods," Hovey recalled, "and he said, 'You know what, I would really like to find is something called a lobster mushroom.'"
His dad explained he was referring to hypomyces lactifluorum, a parasitic fungus that colonizes other kinds of mushrooms, giving them a lobster-red tinge and a seafood-like flavor.
"He just got done saying that, and I look down and go, 'Like that?' Hovey said.
And, sure enough, at their feet was a lobster mushroom cluster.
Even though Hovey said there are mushrooms to be foraged within the city — like the oyster strain he found clinging to the side of a tree near Wilson Avenue and the lakeshore — he mainly wants to teach people how to grow them on their own in gardens and in homes.
Cardboard, corn husks, straw and wood chips are all sufficient hosts for fungi growth, he said, and for indoors, a simple plastic tote filled with soil and fungi spawns would work.
But, one might ask, what about the psychedelic type of fungi commonly referred to as 'shrooms — would you grow those?
"I'm quite certain that there are a lot of people that are looking at me and ... have a certain skepticism about a long-haired guy that's talking a lot about mushrooms," he said.
So, Hovey assures, if the lab is funded, no one would find anything illicit inside.