Mushrooms and the Global Economy

© Peter Werner
Original publication: Mycena News, March 2009

I’ve always had a fascination with ethnobiology, and with ethnomycology in particular. I first entered college as a anthropology/botany co-major, with the intention of becoming an ethnobotanist, or even better, focusing on ethnomycology. The trial by fire of upper division courses in anthropology and botany taught me that I really wasn’t cut out to be an anthropologist, and that at heart, I was really more of a natural scientist than a social scientist.

Still, the varied cultural use of mushrooms remains a topic of interest to me, and hence, it was with great interest that I greeted the November 2008 “Special Mushroom Issue” of Economic Botany. Other than Wasson’s pioneering (and, in truth, overly philological) work on the subject of entheogenic mushrooms, there’s a paucity of literature on the topic. The abundance of articles in this issue takes a stab at filling this gap.

Boletus edulis

The volume is coedited by David Arora, along with ethnobotanist Glenn H. Shepard, with Arora contributing a number of articles and photoessays to the volume. The issue is divided up into geographic themes, with sections devoted to articles on ethnomycology indifferent regions of the world.

A common theme in the articles in this collection is the emerging regulatory control of amateur and commercial mushroom gathering, how different countries handle such regulation, and the inevitable conflicts between interested parties that drive such regulation. As Economic Botany is an applied science journal, many of the articles have a noticeable political slant on issues of resource management, and several articles, notably by Arora, protest the overregulation of mushroom picking in the western United States.

Arora’s article “California Porcini” and Rebecca McLain’s “Constructing a Wild Mushroom Panopticon” note that amateur and commercial mushroom gathering has exploded in popularity in the last 30 or so years, but at the same time clashed with an increasingly “museum under glass” approach to public land management based on overreaction and precious little science.

Arora bemoans the resulting “tragedy of no commons”, where the majority of accessible public land has become closed to mushroom gathering and other types of foraging. This has turned mushroom gathering from an enjoyable public, and often family-based, foraging activity in the wilds to a largely illegal and furtive activity, and one that’s less likely to be passed onto another generation. Arora blames an ideology that is openly hostile to any human utilization of protected lands (even largely human-constructed urban landscapes, such as the Monterey pine forests of San Francisco) that has come to dominate many conservation groups, as well as land management agencies, whose funding is often dependent on political advocacy by such groups. Both of these articles question whether such a degree of regulation is in fact justified given the fact that several studies have so far failed to demonstrate that mushroom foraging at all endangers mushroom populations.

In what I imagine will be a controversial statement for the mushrooming community, Arora also lays part of the blame on local mycological societies such as our own, stating that much of the prohibitive regulation we all now have to deal with has its roots in mycological societies’ activism against commercial mushroom gathering in the 1980s, a move that backfired and led to the widespread prohibition against foraging on the majority of California’s public lands.

Boletus edulis

As if the above wasn’t enough for one article, Arora also delves into taxonomic issues around California porcini. The distinct species identity of several members of the California Boletus edulis group was something that had been noted in Francisco Camacho’s unpublished molecular studies of the group. Arora gives these species the thorough morphological description and valid publication they’ve been in need of. Our Boletus edulis is now renamed Boletus edulis var. grandedulis (though, it still has not been definitively established whether this is a distinct taxon or simply an environmental variant), California B. aereus is renamed B. regineus (it's also pointed out that B. regineus, is quite different from European B. aereus, unfortunately lacking that species flavorful and aromatic qualities), and our Sierra B. pinophilis is renamed B. rex-veris. (For discussion of Arora and Dunham’s work on California chanterelle species, I refer you to Brian Perry’s December MycoDigest article (“An Old Friend Gets a New Name,” Mycena News 59(09):1,6)).

Nicola Sitta and Marco Floriani’s “Nationalization and Globalization Trends in the Wild Mushroom Commerce of Italy with Emphasis on Porcini” gives a similar combination of social and natural history for the B. edulis complex in Europe. The authors give a very interesting history of mushrooms that have been esteemed in Italy over the centuries based on a search of early literature. Species that are rather obscure today were once highly valued, and porcini, in turn, was not quite so ubiquitous throughout Italy. In Calabria, B. edulis and the like were not even consumed until the 1940s, when woodcutters from northern Italy came to the area to work. Before then, Suillus luteus was the bolete of choice! The article also notes that Italian porcini are almost entirely consumed domestically, and any “Italian” porcini that are exported today are likely to be of Balkan, East European, or Chinese origin.

The article divides the B. edulis group into two subgroups, a “mesophilic” group that fruits in areas with winter rainfall and is less aromatic, and a “thermophilic” group, that is more aromatic (and somewhat more valued from a culinary standpoint) that fruits where there is a warmer rainy season. B. edulis, B. pinophilis, and, according to Arora, most California porcini species, including B. regineus, are mesophilic. European B. aereus and, according to Arora, B. barowsii are mesophilic porcini. The effect may be as much environmental as cladistic, as B. edulis proper can sometimes be more aromatic and “mesophilic” in areas that are warmer during its fruiting season.

Arora’s article “The Houses That Matsutake Built,” details the very real economic benefits that an internationally-linked commercial mushroom industry can bring to remote areas of the developing world. In this case, an otherwise-poor Tibetan speaking region of Yunnan. Here, commercial mushroom hunters often make several times the regional average annual income, which in many cases has financed the building of “matsutake mansions” and spurred a diverse local economy of goods and services based upon this foundation of matsutake money.

Several other articles cover more modest commercial wild mushroom industries in several countries that primarily cater to local markets. In Central Mexico, public market mushroom vendors, typically indigenous women, sell some 60 species of wild mushrooms as food, including some like Russula sanguinea which most American mycophiles would think of as edible. In a pair of articles by Jim Trappe and others, the Australian and Kalahari indigenous traditions of gathering a wide variety of desert truffle species is discussed.

Gaston Guzman is best known as the godfather of Psilocybe systematics, but is also quite knowledgeable about the ethnomycology of psilocybin mushroom use among the indigenous peoples of Mexico. In “Hallucinogenic Mushrooms in Mexico: An Overview”, he fills in some areas of Mexican entheogenic ethnomycology left blank by Gordon Wasson, detailing which Psilocybe species are used by which groups, and offering Psilocybe caerulescens as the likely candidate for at least one of the species called teonanacatl by the Aztecs. He also presents some intriguing reports that some native groups may use certain species of Cordyceps and Elaphomyces as a hallucinogen.

Amanita muscaria

Finally, no discussion of this volume would be complete without discussion of David Arora and culinary historian William Rubel’s “A Study of Cultural Bias in Field Guide Determinations of Mushroom Edibility Using the Iconic Mushroom, Amanita muscaria, as an Example”. The article notes that A. muscaria can be an edible and tasty mushroom when thoroughly parboiled, and that A. muscaria actually has a long tradition of being consumed this way in parts of Japan, and to a lesser degree, in Europe and North America. (In a particularly fascinating account, Arora recounts that it was reportedly sold as an edible mushroom in a public market in 19th Century Washington DC.) In what is sure to be a controversial claim, Arora states that A. muscaria should be listed in field guides as an edible species, with appropriate caveats as to how to correctly detoxify it. He reasons that this would be consistent with the fact that many of the mushrooms we describe as good edibles, such as morels, are actually quite toxic when raw and the feared toxicity of A. muscaria is simply a result of cultural bias.

What I’ve discussed is but a handful of the articles in the Economic Botany mushroom issue. It represents a significant contribution to the field of ethnomycology and will hopefully serve to stimulate more work in this fascinating area. Arora’s articles in particular I think are sure to touch off a number of debates. In particular, it is my hope that the articles by Arora, McLain, and others rekindle the debate on land access for foragers, and whether or not the “museum under glass” model of public lands is necessarily always the best model for sustainable use of public lands.