11.3 Wild harvests: commercial mushroom picking

Collecting mushrooms for food is an age-old tradition which is on a par with collection of berries and other forest fruits. When the collection becomes an industry which is pursued in order to supply a commodity it becomes a commercial exploitation of the habitat. Several wild mushrooms have reached the ‘exploitation’ level: particularly chanterelles (Cantharellus cibarius), morels (Morchella esculenta, M. deliciosa and M. elata), truffles (Tuber melanosporum the French Black Truffle, and Tuber magnatum the Italian white truffle of Alba) and matsutake (Tricholoma matsutake). Many have a tradition and mystique associated with them including festivals and markets that associate folk events and heighten interest in and appreciation of the qualities of the products themselves. In Europe, most truffles are collected in France and Italy where truffle hunters use pigs and dogs to sniff out truffles. In Japanese tradition a gift of matsutake is considered a special prize to be cherished by the recipient, and this tradition persists today. To many people the morel is the supreme edible fungus. Morchella belongs to the Ascomycota and fruits in spring (usually May), producing large, club-shaped fruit bodies with distinctive ridged and pitted heads. There are numerous morel fairs around the world.

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Culinary and gourmet fungi have high retail values. Truffles in particular can be extremely costly. At the time of writing they are being quoted from about £1,600 (Fresh Black Winter truffle), £1,350 (White Spring Truffles from Italy), to about £3,350 (Fresh Perigord Black Winter truffle) per kg. You can get more information about these and other commercial fungi from the following:

Speciality mushrooms have always been important to man. This is perhaps most clearly indicated by material carried by the long-dead Alpine traveller who has become known as ‘Ötzi the Tyrolean Iceman’ (Maderspacher, 2008). About 3200 BC a Neolithic traveller set out across the Alps. He didn’t make it. Somehow he was caught in the ice and snow, and died, most likely murdered, to be entombed and preserved in the glacier. Eventually, the glacier’s slow descent of the mountains exposed his corpse at the edge of the ice sheet in 1991, close to the present Austrian/Italian border. A well-preserved 5,000 year old corpse with all of its clothes and equipment is a remarkable find by any measure. Possibly most remarkable is that there were three separate fungal products among the Iceman’s equipment. One of these was a mass of fibrous material in a leather pouch together with some flints. This fungus has been identified as one with a long history of use as a tinder (the tinder bracket, or hoof fungus, Fomes fomentarius), so clearly it was part of the Iceman’s fire-making kit. The other two are more problematical. Both are pieces of a bracket fungus (Piptoporus betulinus) and both are threaded onto leather thongs. These objects were clearly carefully made and must have been important to the owner to be included as part of the kit he chose to take with him in his trek across the mountains. Piptoporus is known to accumulate antiseptics and pharmacologically active substances claimed to reduce fatigue and sooth the mind. With due ceremony and additional magic, these objects may well have been seen as essential to a traveller in the mountains. The conical one might be a sort of styptic pencil to be applied to scratches and grazes. Perhaps the other was chewed or sucked when the going got tough and the undeniably tough needed a little help from psychotropic substances to keep going.

Coming a little closer to the present day, there is a story that in 1872 New Zealand had a fungus-based industry earning, eventually, several £100,000 (present day value several tens of £millions/US$ millions) annually by collecting the wood ear fungus (Auricularia polytricha) for sale in Hong Kong.

The then Colonial Secretary of Hong Kong reported in 1871 that the fungus was “...much prized by the Chinese community...” being used as a medicine and food (it is known in Asian markets as ‘wood ear’ or ‘mu-ehr’, but in Europe as ‘cloud ear’; the ‘wood ear’ common in Europe is Auricularia auricula-judae). New Zealand colonial farmers were paid four pence per pound weight of sun-dried fungus and retail prices in the Hong Kong market were four to ten times that. The merchant is said to have purchased an average of £65 worth on each market day (present value £8,000/US$ 11,000) in New Plymouth. In those pre-decimalisation days there were 240 pence in the £, so £1 would have bought 60 pounds weight of sun-dried fungus, and £65 each market day would buy 60 × 65 = 3,900 pounds weight of sun-dried fungus (equivalent to 1.8 metric tonnes per market day). This trade in New Zealand wood ear was maintained until the 1950s, when commercial cultivation of Auricularia made collection from natural sources uncompetitive.

Clearly, mushrooms have been important sources of food and medicine for a great many years (Pegler, 2003a, b, c), but demand for wild mushrooms grew sharply during the early 1980s and harvesting wild mushrooms is now big business (Peintner et al., 2013). In 1997 the world market for chanterelles (collected, not cultivated) was estimated to be worth more than US$1.5 × 109 (Watling, 1997; present monetary value about US$ 2.3 × 109). Matsutake is another expensive wild mushroom, which can sell for as much as US$200 a piece in Tokyo markets; overall value of the harvest is estimated at US$4.6 to 7.7 × 109 annually. Add the value of tourism and peripheral matters like cookery programmes on TV, recipe books and magazine articles to these crop values and the collection and appreciation of these fungi becomes a very large and diverse industry indeed.

The commercial picking industry has now expanded to a system of harvesters, buyers, processors, and brokers. Harvesters locate and pick the mushrooms. Buyers, typically associated with a specific processor, set up buying stations near wooded areas known to produce mushrooms and advertise their willingness to buy. Processors grade, clean, pack, and ship the product while providing the cash directly to the field workers. Brokers market the mushrooms around the world. This is a model which has become common in Europe and the United States. One of the things that makes it viable is the easy access to rapid trans- and intercontinental transport. As transport and communications continue to improve, the commercial picking industry is bound to continue to expand.

A successful commercial picking job can see a region of woodland completely denuded of marketable mushrooms in just a few hours. Local residents may see this as destruction of a natural resource and there are frequent calls for the activity to be banned in the interests of ‘conservation’. However, picking mushrooms does not do any damage that a conservationist need be concerned about. Mushrooms are not individuals, but simply the fruiting structures arising on underground mycelia. Removing one generation of fruit bodies probably encourages a new generation to emerge. Certainly, continued productivity of cultivated mushroom beds beyond the first flush of cultivated mushrooms is enhanced by regular harvesting. What must be safe-guarded, of course, is the health of the mycelium and so there is a need to avoid unnecessary trampling and disturbance, and activities (trampling, raking, vehicle movements) that physically damage the forest floor and the mycelium that is producing the crop.

A long-term study in Switzerland showed that mushroom picking does not impair future harvests (Egli et al., 2006); but on the other hand, high-traffic recreational sites in woodlands (such as camping and picnic sites) do show localised damage. Over a woodland as a whole, disturbance and compaction had no significant effect; but almost no fruit bodies occurred in the most disturbed areas with bare and trampled soil around campfire sites and picnic tables (Trappe et al., 2009). Consequently, the research done so far in the USA and Europe emphasises the need for effective, and sympathetic, management of wild harvesting rather than its prevention (Górriz-Mifsud et al., 2017).

Updated July, 2019