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How this weird looking fungus could build a Canadian business empire

It's wild-looking, frilly, feathery and, at first glance an unlikely money maker, but one London, Ont. based business is banking on the growing popularity of the maitake mushroom as the foundation of a North American business empire.

London, Ont.-based Shogun Maitake Canada hopes to bring an Asian delicacy to North America

This maitake mushroom was grown in 100 days in an artificial environment meant to recreate the forests of Japan, where the wild fungus is prized by mushroom hunters. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

It's wild-looking, frilly, feathery and, at first glance an unlikely money maker, but one London, Ont. based business is banking on the growing popularity of the maitake mushroom as the foundation of a North American business empire. 

Shogun Maitake Canada set up shop in London about a year after company CEO Yoshinbu Odaira received an invitation from Joe Fontana while the former London mayor was on a trade mission to Japan. 

"Right now we are preparing to sell," said Odaira, speaking through his translator and executive assistant Norimi Sakamoto. "Once we start selling, I'm pretty sure it's going to take off." 

Yoshinobu Odaira explains why mushrooms became his life's work 1:07

What makes Odaira so confident is a mushroom shrouded in myth. 

Maitake translates from Japanese literally as "dance mushroom" and folklore tells of a group of woodcutters and nuns who were so overjoyed at discovering the tasty mushroom sprouting from the forest floor they danced for joy. 

It's said the maitake was so prized during Japan's feudal period that the Shogun, or supreme warlord, would pay the wild mushroom's equivalent weight in silver. 

To this day, the fungus is still cherished by chefs and mushroom hunters for its flavour, texture and storied healing powers. The maitake, or "hen of the woods" as it's known in English, grows wild at the base of oak, elm and even maple trees in hardwood forests around the world.

What makes Odaira different from your average mushroom hunter though is that he doesn't intend to go scouring the damp floors of forests. Rather, intends to grow his fungi in a lab, using technology and techniques he developed over the course of the last 30 years. 

How it's made

Hundreds of bags of sawdust sit on shelves at Shogun Maitake Canada's facility in London, Ont., where in 100 days each one will bloom into a full grown maitake mushroom that sells for $35 retail. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

The mushrooms take about 100 days to mature. Workers grind oak chips into saw dust, plop the grainy mixture into a clear plastic bag and seed it with maitake mushroom spores.

The mixture is then kept in complete darkness for a number of weeks to mimic the fact that the nascent mushroom would be underground in its natural surroundings.

Humidity and temperature are also closely controlled to mimic the conditions of a Japanese forest. 

The summer room

Workers will introduce maitake spores to each bag of sawdust and the fungus gradually eats the wood and grows until it fills the bag. The young mushrooms are kept in total darkness until they sprout in order to simulate the time they spend underground. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

The spores slowly start to consume the sawdust in the bag and it eventually turns from a dark brown to white, as the fungus fills its container. 

Once this happens, the bag is transferred to a room specifically designed to copy the summer conditions of a Japanese forest. 

Here, the mushrooms are allowed to stay for a number of months and once they start to peek their frilly heads out of the bag, they're transferred to what the company calls "the late summer room." 

The late summer room

Once the mushrooms sprout, workers move them into "the late summer room" where they are exposed to light, lower temperatures, moisture and even a slight breeze in order to mimic the conditions of the forests of their native Japan.

Once the mushroom's head grows out of the bag workers expose it to light, moisture and even a slight breeze in order to imitate late summer conditions. 

The maitakes only spend 10 days in the late summer room and take about 100 days to reach full maturity. Once they do, they grow to the size of a large cabbage or small pumpkin. 

The mushrooms last about 11 days in the fridge and even after that, can be dried and powdered. Shogun Maitake Canada sells its produce at retail for about $35 a mushroom and plans to ship across North America.  

"The first fragrance of the maitake mushroom is very nice," company CEO Yoshinbu Odaira said, picking up one of his large feathery mushrooms with both hands and taking a long deep sniff. "Compared to other mushrooms, the maitake has a very rich umami."

Building an empire

Over more than three decades, Yoshibobu Odaira has developed a way to grow maitake mushrooms in an artificial environment. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

Right now Odaira is banking on the maitake's culinary reputation, hoping to sell to chefs and restaurants in major North American cities, such as New York.

Chefs in big city restaurants have to import maitakes from Japan, which would take days. Now with a growing facility in London, Ont., Odaira can ship the mushrooms quickly and cheaply and in better condition than if they spent days aboard a cargo ship. 

Odaira also hopes to harness the maitake's reputation as an immune booster. He's watching closely as the world's scientific community investigates the mushroom's anti-viral capabilities and potential as a cancer fighting agent. 

At this point, Odaira has deliberately kept the London operation small. Shogun Maitake Canada currently has only 10 employees, but if his mushrooms take off like he thinks they will, he's hoping to expand the operation to 150 employees and eventually open four other factories of that size in the London region. 

About the Author

Colin Butler

Video Journalist

Colin Butler is a veteran CBC reporter who's worked in Moncton, Saint John, Fredericton, Toronto, Kitchener-Waterloo, Hamilton and London, Ont. Email: colin.butler@cbc.ca