Gotcha, hippie. Not those kind, but matsutake mushrooms, a highly sought-after mycorrhizal mushroom that grows in Europe, Asia and North America. Researchers from China and The Netherlands conducted a study looking into the highly prized strain of ‘shrooms that are also in danger due to over-collection. This delicacy is consumed at a rate of 3,500 tons a year in Japan, where they are most popular, though national production only covers one-third of the demand. Outside of the island-nation, other regions of the world are also cashing in on the desire mushrooms; British Columbia, Canada harvests about 500 tons a year bringing in upwards of $45 million. In the area where the study focused, the Yunnan province of China, production of the matsutake dropped by half in a span of 5 years from 600 tons a year in 1995 to 300 tons in 2000, which ultimately led to the mushroom earning a protected status.
The study focused on the Jidi village in northwest Yunnan, an area with high mountains and deep gorges, and which is rich in biodiversity, containing 40% of the province’s 15,000 plant species. The study encompassed 215 square kilometers, with elevations ranging from 3,100 to 4,200 meters, and a bulk of the region was primarily forested, with species such as pine, fir and oak. The area also has a significant wet season from June to October, the time when the mushrooms are most likely to be abundant.
Field sampling of mushroom distribution was difficult, and the research team had to rely on locals to find the prized fungi. Most of these mushrooms reside below the soil, and in the event that there were above-ground mushrooms (sporocarps), they were often concealed by forest detritus. Six villages were randomly selected for the study to assess the impact of species loss; and seven local experts were also chosen randomly to minimize the impact of bias on selection technique and search area.
As there is an optimum soil temperature to produce the matsutake, the researchers wanted to isolate the role of elevation – and thus decreased temperatures – on the likelihood of abundance due to topographic variation. One concern though was that lower elevations were more likely to be plundered due to ease of access; higher elevations that still maintained proper soil temperatures would in theory be harder to get to and less likely to be pillaged, especially by those who are unfamiliar with how to properly treat the soil and harvest the fungi.
As a decreased forest canopy was shown to affect matsutake production, deforestation and the potential for further urbanization near productive regions is a cause for future research and present day concern. The authors indicated that China was transitioning from enforced, state-controlled use of agricultural lands to a system that focuses on individual responsibility. This was seen as a positive shift in regards to niche agriculture and future sustainability of the matsutake mushroom.