clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Death in the Forest

What are rare mushroom hunters really searching for?

1 In September 2015, I travelled to a remote forest in Japan's Nara Prefecture, where I hoped to find one of the world's rarest mushrooms. I had no guide and no special talent for mushroom hunting, but I was emboldened by the knowledge that one man had twice encountered the rare fungi, Chorioactis geaster, while surveying the humid forests near Kawakami Village, which is home to just over two thousand people. Masakuni Kimura, who curates a local natural history museum, first happened upon Chorioactis geaster near the end of summer in 2006, when he found a dozen specimens sprouting from a dead oak tree next to a mountain stream. They looked like dark brown cigars protruding from the fallen timber. Then, in September 2007, he discovered four more of the mushrooms near the same site, roughly 470 meters above sea level.

Only one other person had ever seen this mushroom on Japanese soil, and he had died years earlier, making Kimura the only currently living witness to its existence. In 1937, a young mycologist named Rokuya Imazeki discovered Chorioactis geaster on Japan's southern island of Kyushu. By the time Imazeki spotted the mushroom again, in 1975, Japan had fought and lost a war, adopted a new constitution, and experienced a miraculous economic recovery.

These days, Kimura's true passion is moss. No amount of pleading could convince him to lead me in search of Chorioactis geaster, which has been found only in southern Japan, where it is called kirinomitake, as well as in a few counties in central and south Texas — its spores having somehow floated across the Pacific Ocean and half the United States — where it is known as the Devil's Cigar. So I set out alone, hewing closely to the minutes of a recent meeting of Japan's Mycological Society where Kimura had given his account, searching along streams running at the same elevation at which Kimura had seen the mushroom, scanning the spongy terrain for fallen oak trees.

The hunt was solitary work. Kirinomitake is inedible, and therefore of no interest to commercial pickers, who aren’t really looking for mushrooms so much as for edible commodities. The few who hunt rare inedible mushrooms are in search of something different — something that is perhaps deeper than they know. Fungi are, after all, more closely related to animals than plants.

At the same time, much further north, in Nagano Prefecture, hordes of mushroom pickers were beginning to search for the most prized of the edible varieties — the rare matsutake, so beloved for its distinctive aroma and flavor that it commands prices in the same league as caviar and truffles. While our motivations were very different, the mushrooms we all hunted had something in common: Neither kirinomitake nor matsutake can be cultivated. In fact, most of the world’s rare fungi, whether edible or not, are scarce precisely because they arise from such miraculous conditions.

Japan’s native species of matsutake, for instance, grows only in forests of Japanese red pine. The mushroom has a symbiotic relationship with the red pine, which sprouts from dry forest soil like a giant, untamed bonsai tree. The mushrooms come up in rings around the trees’ roots, where the tree receives minerals from the soil while giving back sugars in exchange. It is an ecology that has proved exceedingly difficult to reproduce, despite the best efforts of farmers and researchers in Japan, where the annual matsutake harvest has declined over the past 50 years from 5000 tons to 100.

Because the matsutake cannot be cultivated, researchers have instead focused on understanding how to revive its growth in areas where the mushroom has existed naturally for centuries. Iwaizumi is a small town set against the mountains along Japan's northeastern coastline, near one of the country's largest red pine forests. For centuries, matsutake were a staple food for locals, but stocks began to decline starting in the 1960s. The prolonged slide began to hurt the local economy, so in 1989, town officials founded a research facility dedicated to revitalizing matsutake harvests. Fumihiko Yoshimura, who had been researching matsutake for years at Kyoto University, was hired to lead the project.

The cause of Iwaizumi's vanishing matsutake soon became clear to Yoshimura. Prior to the 1960s, when Japan's postwar economic recovery spread prosperity through industrialization, Iwaizumi was known for producing some of Japan's finest charcoal. The region’s Japanese red pine trees were left untouched, but other broadleaf trees in the dense forests were pruned and thinned out by charcoal makers, who also collected fallen branches from the forest floor. After industrialization took hold, the charcoal industry shrank, and Iwaizumi's red pine forests were no longer thinned out or tended. The trees were surrounded by overgrowth, and didn't get enough light; the fallen leaves and branches formed thick mats of leaf mold, which provided a nutrient-rich surface for the growth of mold and bacteria, the natural enemies of matsutake.

Yoshimura told Iwaizumi residents that they should rake the forest floor for mold and begin collecting fallen branches for kindling once again. They followed this advice and soon saw the area’s annual matsutake harvest grow to six tons, three times greater than before. (That number continues to grow, and Yoshimura is now trying to duplicate these results in other matsutake-producing regions in Japan.)

In Iwaizumi, as in many other parts of the world, the people who hunt mushrooms are in search of something sensual, if not necessarily tangible — a psychedelic or culinary high, if not money. While the fossil record shows that fungi have endured on this planet for at least 460 million years, varieties like matsutake, which ask so much of circumstance, suggest the kind of fragility that feels all too familiar in our age of altered ecologies and extreme climate change.

2 Japan’s oldest and most enduring collection of poetry is the Collection of Myriad Leaves, which dates to the eighth century. It contains hundreds of long poems and several thousand short poems, including a paean to the mushroom so beloved by aristocrats in ancient Japan that it drew them out of their castles and into the dry forests of red pine each autumn: In Takamatsu / Upon the narrow peaks / I hold my umbrella high / Surrounded by a bounty / Of gorgeous matsutake

Today, more than 70 varieties of mushroom are widely eaten in Japan, but the matsutake remains unsurpassed as the standard against which all other fungi are measured. Unfortunately, the decades of dwindling harvests have forced Japanese mushroom lovers to look elsewhere for their favorite delicacy; the $300 million they spend on mushrooms each year now goes to mostly imported varieties from China and Korea. But for twenty-five years, southern Oregon has been thought to produce the finest matsutake outside of Japan’s red pine forests.

Oregon’s reign began in September of 1989, when large numbers of commercial mushroom pickers arrived to forage the state’s forests for the first time. The confluence of events that brought them there seem as unlikely and random as a fungal spore floating over a vast ocean: Railroads built along the Deschutes River 80 years earlier had spawned a robust logging industry that led to abundant forests with tree coverage between 40 and 70 percent, ideal for matsutake growth. At the same time, European demand for Oregon mushrooms skyrocketed due to lingering effects of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, which contaminated many traditional mushroom-gathering areas on the continent. And in Japan, a class of people who could afford matsutake for the first time, thanks to the country's swelling economic bubble, developed a taste for the fungus just as native harvests had begun their decline.

Seemingly overnight, an underground economy sprang up in small Oregon towns like Chemult and La Grande, where during the early fall months, transient mushroom hunters sometimes outnumbered locals, some eight or ten thousand foragers setting up camp throughout the southern part of the state. Mushroom buyers with clients in Europe and Asia formed makeshift markets, conducting business on folding tables beneath plastic tarps. Within a few years, brokers were buying $40 million of wild mushrooms each year, and selling them for millions more to fine restaurants and markets around the world. In 1993, a single buyer named Floyd Reese told the New York Times he had bought $4 million worth of mushrooms from seasonal pickers the year before. The following year, he expected, would be even better.

During the first few years of the rush, most pickers would earn $80 or $100 each day from mid-summer through fall, making $8 a pound for morels and boletus, and much, much more for matsutake. I met a woman named Emily living near the town of Siuslaw, who has been foraging mushrooms in Oregon since an injury forced her out of the army in 1982; she told me she once got paid $300 a pound for a haul of high-quality matsutake. (I agreed not to use her full name after she told me about some violent incidents she'd seen in her years picking mushrooms.) "People in this industry want to keep their secrets," Emily told me. "Someone once snuck up behind my husband and whacked him in the head with a tree limb because he'd picked a patch they thought was theirs. Then the vengeful picker got his friends together and raked the patch to the bare ground."

The problem, she said, was usually "rednecks and druggies," who were unpredictable and violent. But there were other sources of conflict. Most of the mushroom pickers who arrived in Oregon after 1989 were migrant workers from Southeast Asia; in 1993, a U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman named Judy West told the Los Angeles Times that the workers were considered unwelcome by some local residents, particularly those who had fought in the Vietnam War. "Some people haven't worked through their feelings about the war," West said. "A lot of local people are uncomfortable."

In reality, many of the Southeast Asian workers had been resettled by the U.S. government; they had collaborated against communists in their native countries, aiding or often fighting alongside U.S. soldiers before being brought to places like California and Minnesota. But this hardly mattered to the white mushroom pickers, who were outnumbered and often outclassed by immigrants working in cooperative groups with family and friends, and who occasionally expressed their resentment in violent ways.

For decades, Oregon had been the nation's largest source of timber, but dwindling old-growth forests meant declining harvests throughout the 1980s. Jobs that Oregon's white working class relied on steadily vanished. The 1990 listing of the northern spotted owl as an endangered species further threatened these jobs thanks to logging restrictions around its habitat. Tens of thousands of loggers were out of work or just working less, and some of them turned to mushroom foraging to make up for the loss of income. These former loggers, almost exclusively poorly educated whites from rural areas competed against migrant workers for large sums of money, and did so at a disadvantage: Although they knew Oregon's forests, they did not know mushroom hunting.

What happened next was a meeting of two cultures under the worst and most dangerous circumstances, in which racism combined with greed.

3 Thorng Mao arrived in Klamath County, Oregon, from his home in Raymond, California, late in the summer of 1992, one of a crew of 20 or so Cambodian pickers. Professionals who knew the business and played by the rules, they each spent $500 on commercial mushroom-picking permits from the U.S. Forest Service. Mao knew this was a worthwhile investment: One pound of prime matsutake would earn him enough to pay for his permit; everything else would be pure profit.

More than eight thousand pickers stalked the woods of southern Oregon that summer. Pickers grew territorial and, increasingly, they were armed. The sheriff in a neighboring county heard reports of pickers guarding prime patches with shotguns, while some pickers alleged that rivals shot at branches above their heads to scare them off. One recreational mushroom hunter was nearly shot when commercial pickers put a bullet through the door of his car. Paranoia spread through the region, and many pickers began carrying guns simply as a precaution.

Thorng Mao wasn't one of them. When he was shot to death in October 1992, he was unarmed and out foraging by himself in the woods of Klamath County. The murder remained unsolved, and members of Mao's group wondered whether the local police took crimes against them seriously. Less than a year later, in June 1993, another Cambodian picker from Raymond was murdered while hunting for mushrooms in southern Oregon. Phay Eng, a member of the same small group of commercial pickers as Mao, was just 22 years old. He was killed while changing his car's tire by the side of a road 30 miles outside of La Grande; he had been robbed of several hundred dollars and all the mushrooms he'd picked that day.

4 When it comes to poisoning, there is one mushroom that kills more than any other. Amanita phalloides, more widely known as the death cap, is said to taste delicious. Its symptoms often don't surface until a day after it is eaten, initially seeming like a mild stomach illness, even as the death cap quietly destroys the diner's liver. Some years, the mushroom might kill a few elderly foragers in France, and a few more in the U.S. and Italy. But in reality, the vast majority of people killed because of mushrooms die before they ever get a chance to empty their basket and eat one.

In 2010, only one American died from eating poisonous mushrooms, according to a report issued by the American Association of Poison Control Centers. That same year, in a span of just 10 days, 18 people died while hunting mushrooms in Italy: In the Lombardy region, they fell into crevasses where their broken bodies succumbed to blood loss and dehydration; in Piedmont, near the border with France, ill-equipped amateurs went into the forests and mountains and succumbed to exposure after becoming lost; and in Trentino-Alto Adige, near Austria, they lost their footing while navigating sheer rock faces under cover of darkness, aiming to thwart their rivals but instead thwarting any would-be rescuers. One victim was a 65-year-old woman who fell 40 meters down a steep, rocky slope in a forest near Sondrio, a small town near the Swiss border.

These were mostly amateurs, foraging for a special ingredient to add to their fall cooking, drawn to an unknown danger by the early and bountiful harvest that blessed the Alpine valleys of northern Italy that year. And like the U.S., Italy has its share of murder indictments that lead back to some quarrel over mushrooms. On October 1, 2016, police found the headless corpse of Albano Crocco near an isolated ravine in the woods outside Genoa. The evidence soon led them to the pensioner's 55-year-old nephew, Claudio Borgarelli, who lived nearby. The Italian media reported that police bugging devices placed in Borgarelli's cottage after the body's discovery indicated the alleged killer had shot and beheaded his uncle because he believed he was trespassing on his property while foraging for mushrooms.

5 Last September, over the course of several hikes around Eugene, Oregon, I encountered a number of mushroom pickers who all told me that the pursuit divided people into one of two groups: those searching for mushrooms, and those searching for money. This view of mushroom hunting is largely that of rogue foodies and amateur mycologists; those who must scrape from the soil some kind of living seem to have less time to dwell on the philosophical underpinnings of their endeavors.

In Japan, after finding no sign of the puff of white that emerges from the Devil’s Cigar as it gives up its spores, nor hearing the distinctive hissing sound this produces, I had only my own musings to consider. Near dusk, I climbed high up on a bluff and looked out toward the ocean kirinomitake had once crossed. We still don’t know how kirinomitake spores made this journey from Japan to Texas, but we can be sure we played no part in it; genetic testing shows the Japanese fungus began adapting itself to life on the Texas plains millions of years before humans walked the earth.

Whatever carried those spores more than six thousand miles, over ocean and continent, was undoubtedly less important to its voyage than whatever traits nature selected to help them survive and propagate. Evidence of this reproductive drive can be seen throughout the fungi kingdom, in the elegant caps that protect immature spores as they grow, and in the poisons that keep grazing animals from eating certain varieties.

Last year, a new adaptation was recorded in an academic study: Some fungi in Alaska were shown to respond to rising temperatures with an increased metabolism and faster reproduction, accelerating their intake of oxygen from and output of carbon into the atmosphere. On a mass scale, such an adaptation could hasten the warming of the planet that humans have already set in motion. And despite the catastrophic effect this would have on many kinds of fungi, they seem in the end, on the whole, more likely than we to remain.

Joshua Hunt is a former Tokyo correspondent for Reuters and a freelance contributor at the California Sunday Magazine, the Atavist, and the New Yorker. His first book will be published by Melville House later this year.
Ala Lockhart is a concept artist and illustrator who currently resides in Mount Vernon, New York.
Edited by Matt Buchanan
Copy edited by Rachel P. Kreiter

Read more Eater features:

Anthony Bourdain’s Fiction Confidential
Detroit’s American Dream
Garrett Oliver Wants You to Follow Your Dreams
America, Pizza Hut, and Me

Can't get enough of Eater? Sign up for our newsletter.


Please Don’t Tell Me About Every Single Dish on the Menu

The Move

You Should Always, Always Ask for Extra Sauce When Ordering Delivery


Honoring the Ancestral Tradition of Tequila in Jalisco, Mexico