The Cantharellus cibarius, most commonly known as chanterelle, is one of the most celebrated wild edible mushroom in the world. You would think by now that this prized fungus, which can be collected in the hundreds in certain wooded areas, would be commercially cultivated. But it is not. In fact, only twenty edible fungal species can be commercially cultivated out of thousands of fungi that have been classified. Harvesting wild mushrooms for profit does occur in at least sixty countries, including China, the United States, and France. With all of this energy spent to obtain these cherished edible mushrooms either for upscale restaurants or specialised farmers markets, what has prevented human interventions into the world of the wild chanterelle? And, is it perhaps the knowledge of our failure that drives a secret art of foraging for the desirable and untamed wildness?
Northern California, specifically the Bay Area, is very plentiful in wild edible mushrooms. Usually my partner and I would begin our first hunt in the woods in late November – the beginning of the rainy season. If the rain has been generous and the ground has not reached any freezing temperatures, there’s a good chance that the little beautiful golden forms in the woods will appear. Through the brush and into the dense, old-growth oak forests, after a fresh rain, the smell of the earth, moss, and gentle fruity aroma could lead you to a little patch of bright orange chanterelle mushrooms, growing in a symbiotic relationship with the roots of trees.
Despite copious collections of mushroom patches discovered in secret areas, it is impossible to predict if and when there might be a good or bad foraging season for certain wild mushrooms. I had thought that maybe a specific weather pattern might determine how bountiful a season could be, but this is not true. Hence, the act and art of foraging becomes a strange, obsessive pursuit of pattern in the special behavior of the chanterelle mycelium.
The chanterelle family includes four different genera: Cantharellus, Craterellus, Gomphus, and Polyozellus. Within the family, there are thirteen identified types of chanterelle mushrooms: chanterelle, cinnabar-red chanterelle, flame-colored chanterelle, smooth chanterelle, small chanterelle, white chanterelle, trumpet chanterelle, yellow-footed chanterelle, black trumpet, fragrant chanterelle, pig’s ear gomphus, scaly vase chanterelle, and clustered blue chanterelle. Most are orange or yellow; a few are gray to brownish-black. One is white, one is blue, and a few have albino color forms. Most are also either convex or vase-shaped. All lack true gills. Instead, as the mushroom develops, it produces spores on ridges, folds, or on a nearly smooth surface.
It is the sensitive symbiosis between fungus and plant that makes the chanterelle so difficult to cultivate for commercial purposes.
The chanterelle is also known as a mycorrhizal mushroom, which means that it exists in a symbiotic relationship with tree roots. Mycorrhizal mushrooms (myco means “mushroom”; rhizal means “related to roots”), such as matsutake, boletus, and chanterelles, form mutually beneficial relationships with pines and other plants. The mycelia of fungal species that form exterior sheaths around the roots of partner plants are termed ectomycorrhizal. The mycorrhizal fungi that invade the interior root cells of host plants are labeled endomycorrhizal. Both plant and mycorrhizae benefit from this association: because ectomycorrhizal mycelium grows beyond the plant’s roots, it brings distant nutrients and moisture to the host plant, extending the absorption zone well beyond the root structure. The mycelium increases the plant’s ingestion of nutrients, nitrogenous compounds, and essential elements as it decomposes surrounding debris. The chanterelle is most commonly seen in association with pine, spruce, hemlock, birch, oak, fir and beech trees.
It is this sensitive symbiotic ecosystem that makes the chanterelle so difficult to cultivate for commercial purposes. As a mycorrhizal fungus, it is a challenge to control its climate, soil chemistry, and predominant microflora in and out of its environment. Chanterelles also demonstrate an unusual interdependence on soil yeasts, making tissue culture troublesome.
Domesticated fungi, such as the button, crimini, and portobello mushrooms, are not only edible but can also be considered cultural artifacts. These particular types of mushrooms do exist naturally but their evolutionary pathways have been altered by humans and cannot survive without human assistance in the certain varieties that are produced commercially. A cultural artifact is determined once there is human interaction and intervention with the fungus. It is humans who redefine what kinds of attributes or characteristics increase or decrease a mushroom’s likelihood of producing successful offspring. We have changed the selective pressures acting on the “domesticated” population so that they have become quite different from that which shapes populations of the same species in the wild.
The undomesticated chanterelle is one of the few symbols left in our culture today that can still be considered ‘wild’.
The twenty edible species of commercially cultivated mushrooms are not mycorrhizal fungi and are not interdependent with specific plants or soils. Arguably, this knowledge changes our understanding of what a certain mushroom is and can become in connection to its environment. The chanterelle, by contrast, is not a cultural artifact; humans have no domain over the evolution of this fungus. It has its own relationship and connection to the land that it flourishes on.
I do not forage for mushrooms for commercial purposes. My personal experiences in foraging are more about my relationships to my surrounding environment, and how distant I feel from it when I am in a grocery store. Either for the commercial or individual mushroom forager, the hunt to find the secret location deep in the woods drives the addiction to stay connected to the land and to the foods that can be collected and cultivated as they once were. The undomesticated chanterelle stands as one of the few symbols left in our culture today that can still be considered “wild”. It will be desired as long as it cannot be contained.
Paul Stamets, Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World, (Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2005)
Gary H. Lincoff, National Audubon Society: Field Guide to North American Mushrooms, (New York: Chanticleer Press, 1981)
Douglas Deur and Nancy Turner, Keeping It Living: Traditions of Plant Use and Cultivation on the Northwest Coast of North America, (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2005)