An organism, sometimes called a mushroom, is causing a lot of buzz these days. It is not a mushroom at all, but a living collection of microorganisms used to make a popular elixir called kombucha. Recipes that include a variety of different teas and fruit juices add a delicious zest to the basic beverage.
Kombucha is a fermented drink made when a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast, called a “scoby,” is added to sweetened tea, causing it to ferment into an effervescent beverage. The scoby is produced by a larger culture called the “mother,” or kombucha mushroom.
The modern English word kombucha is unrelated to the ancient Japanese word kombucha, though it is sometimes confused with the word used to describe a seaweed tea made from a dried and powdered edible kelp called kombu. Although the English word may have originally derived from the name of the Japanese tea, the beverages are not similar in content or taste. In addition, a Japanese pumpkin squash called kabocha is sometimes confused with kombucha because of the similar pronunciation and spelling.
A kombucha culture is a combination of microbial species gathered into a gelatinous clump that looks like a beige rubber disk. This combination of bacteria and yeast added to sugar and tea causes an acid fermentation. This limits the production of alcohol and results in a kombucha beverage with a pH between 2.8 and 4. The high acidity helps it to resist contamination by most bacterial spores or airborne molds and makes it relatively easy to maintain.
Kombucha probably originated in northeast China. It was brought to Russia sometime before 1910 and spread from there into Germany and the rest of Europe. Kombucha is said to “detoxify the body and energize the mind;” research indicates that one of the active components, glucaric acid, does assist the liver in detoxifying the body.
The acidity of the effervescent drink can also influence the production of stomach acids and modify the communities of microorganisms in the gut. The beverage is loaded with probiotics, antioxidants and healthy amino acids known to benefit the body. Other health benefits attributed to kombucha include immune system stimulation and cancer prevention.
Ways of growing, using and maintaining the kombucha culture vary widely. A basic recipe for making the tea is included in Sandor Katz’s book “Wild Fermentation,” but taking a class, studying variations online and recipe experimentation can help you succeed at producing an exceptional product.
Katz’s basic recipe starts with making 2 quarts of black, white or green tea. Non-oily herbal teas may also work. Dissolve about 1⁄4 cup of sweetener in the tea. Sweeteners like refined white sugar, evaporated cane juice, brown sugar or molasses work best. Let the sweetened tea steep and cool. Add 1⁄2 cup of finished kombucha at this point, then add a scoby.
Cover the completed mixture with a secured piece of cloth to allow airflow and store it in a well-ventilated place, out of direct sunlight at about 70 degrees. In a week to 10 days, start tasting the tea until it has reached a balance of sweetness and acidity that you like. The liquid should be translucent and a baby scoby should appear above the original. Remove and preserve the scoby and the mother. Once this is done, you can add juice for extra flavor and sparkle.
Consider juices from fruit you are growing or other local products, including lilikoi, pineapple, strawberries, Surinam cherry, acerola, coconut, guava, jaboticaba, lemongrass, red zinger hibiscus or ginger. Some citrus juices may work also. Experiment.
Using local juices will enhance the flavor, the fizz and the health benefits of your final product. Once you are satisfied with your kombucha, store it in the refrigerator in smaller jars with tight fitting lids. To enhance the fizz, take it out of the refrigerator about 15 minutes before drinking.
Growing, preserving and maintaining your new scoby will require some care. You can get a scoby and instructions from someone who is making kombucha or maintaining mothers. Ask around to find a source.
Tropical gardening helpline
Shannon asks: I’m trying to grow potatoes in a large pot. I planted the seed potatoes about 6 inches from the bottom of the pot and kept piling soil on top of the plants as they were growing. Most of the plants came up through the additional soil, but I recently noticed that some of the emerging plants were chewed off at the soil line. What caused this and what can I do about it?
Answer: I’m afraid you may have lost some of your young seedlings to cutworms or slugs. Unless you see the silvery snail or slug trails in your pots, your plant may have been eaten by cutworms.
These are sinister critters. One day you have cute little seedlings promising to develop into healthy crops and the next day they are lying dead on top of the soil or they are gone. Many cutworm varieties have preferred host plants. Cutworms usually feed at night and young seedlings are particularly vulnerable to their attack.
Several preventive measures can save your seedlings next time you plant. A physical barrier is the best prevention. You can use small yogurt containers with the bottom cut out or cut up toilet paper or paper towel cardboard rolls to make barrier rings about 2 or 3 inches long to put around your seedlings. Bury the bottom of the ring into the soil 1⁄2 to 1 inch deep and leave an inch or two above the soil around the plant.
Another effective remedy is to spray with bacillus thuringiensis. This bacterium is not toxic to humans or mammals, only to caterpillars or worms. The problem is this fungus takes a few days to kill the cutworm and by that time, your plants may all be eaten.
Look for the cutworm moth or eggs it has laid in or around your seedlings. If you find them, destroy them.
Since it seems you likely have cutworms in your garden area, prevent their damage in future plantings by ringing your seedlings as soon as they come up. Once they achieve a girth of 1⁄2 to 3⁄4 inch they are much less vulnerable to cutworm damage and you can remove the ring or, if it’s paper, let it disintegrate.
Email plant questions to email@example.com for answers by certified master gardeners. Some questions will be chosen for inclusion in this column.
Diana Duff is a plant adviser, educator and consultant with an organic farm in Captain Cook.