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1 Introduction: setting the scene


Wild edible fungi (WEF1) have been collected and consumed by people for thousands of years. The archaeological record reveals edible species associated with people living 13 000 years ago in Chile (Rojas and Mansur, 1995) but it is in China where the eating of wild fungi is first reliably noted, several hundred years before the birth of Christ (Aaronson, 2000). Edible fungi were collected from forests in ancient Greek and Roman times and highly valued, though more by high-ranking people than by peasants (Buller, 1914). Caesar’s mushroom (Amanita caesarea) is a reminder of an ancient tradition that still exists in many parts of Italy, embracing a diversity of edible species dominated today by truffles (Tuber spp.) and porcini (Boletus edulis).

China features prominently in the early and later historical record of wild edible fungi. The Chinese have for centuries valued many species, not only for nutrition and taste but also for their healing properties. These values and traditions are as strong today as they were centuries ago and are confirmed by the huge range of wild fungi collected from forests and fields and marketed widely (Wang, 1987) (Plate 8). China is also the leading exporter of cultivated mushrooms.

It is less well known that countries such as Mexico (Plate 7) and Turkey, and major areas of central and southern Africa (Plate 6), also have a long and notable tradition of wild edible fungi. The list of countries where wild fungi are reported to be consumed and provide income to rural people is impressive (Annex 1).

The threat posed by poisonous and lethal species is often overstated. Incidents of poisoning and deaths are few and far between compared to the regular and safe consumption of edible species, but publicity and cultural attitudes continue to fuel an intrinsic fear of wild fungi in some societies. This is more commonly found in developed countries and has undoubtedly led to general beliefs that global use of wild edible fungi is small-scale and restricted to key areas. As this publication conclusively shows, this is simply not true (Table 1). The use of wild edible fungi is both extensive and intensive, though patterns of use do vary (Annex 1).

Wild edible fungi add flavour to bland staple foods but they are also valuable foods in their own right. Local names for termite mushrooms (Termitomyces) (Plate 6) reflect local beliefs that they are a fair substitute for meat, a belief that is confirmed by nutritional analyses. Not all wild edible fungi have such a high protein content but they are of comparable nutritional value to many vegetables.

In addition to making substantial contri-butions to the diets of poor people in developing countries, they are an important source of income. Wild edible fungi are sold in many local markets and commercial harvesting has provided new sources of income for many rural people. The demand for specialist wild mushrooms from Europe and Japan continues to earn significant amounts for countries such as Bhutan, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and Pakistan.

Wild fungi also have medicinal properties, some of which are found in edible species (Table 1). Wild useful fungi therefore contribute towards diet, income and human health. Many species also play a vital ecological role through the symbiotic relationships known as mycorrhizas that they form with trees. Truffles and other valuable wild edible fungi depend on trees for their growth and cannot be cultivated artificially. The mycorrhizas enable trees to grow in nutrient-poor soils. The trees of the miombo woodland of central and southern Africa and the woodland itself would not exist without their fungal partners.

The importance of wild edible fungi continues to grow for more fundamental reasons. Logging bans in several countries has renewed interest in non-wood forest products (NWFP) as an alternative source of income and jobs for people previously employed in forestry. Wild edible fungi have played an important role in providing new sources of income in China and the United States of America. Further information is given in Chapters 3 and 4.

To summarize, wild edible fungi are important for three main reasons:


Numbers of species of wild edible and medicinal fungi




1. Edible only

1 009


2. Edible and medicinal



3. Food only



4. Food and medicinal



5. Medicinal only



6. Other uses (none of above)



TOTAL wild useful species

2 327


ALL edible only (1+2)

1 097


ALL food (3+4)

1 069


ALL medicinal (2+4+5)



Note: Compiled from more than 200 different sources from 110 countries, but excludes a detailed review of species from developed countries. Varieties and subspecies are counted separately. The categories food and edible are mutually exclusive. To distinguish clearly between use and properties of a species: substantial numbers of edible species lack confirmed use as food.


Wild edible fungi and mushrooms

Fungi are a distinct group of organisms which include species with large and visible fruiting bodies (macrofungi). The best known examples of macrofungi are the mushrooms. They have a cap and a stalk and are frequently seen in fields and forests. Most are simply inedible but there are notable examples that can be eaten. The number of poisonous species is relatively small while those that are fatal belong to a tiny minority. The most familiar edible mushrooms are those that are cultivated and sold fresh and tinned in shops.

Macrofungi have many different shapes and appearances. Boletes have pores rather than gills on the underside of the cap; truffles grow underground and do not have a stalk and a cap (Plate 1). Huitlacoche is a Mexican food produced when maize cobs are infected by a fungus. This is clearly not a mushroom.

Wild edible fungus (fungi is the plural form, usually pronounced with a hard “g”) is used to distinguish their origin and the fact that they include a variety of forms that include infected maize cobs, stomach fungi, boletes, bracket fungi and, of course, mushrooms. Many other publications (e.g. Hall et al., 1998a) refer to wild mushrooms, defining this broadly to include the different shapes and appearances.

It is interesting to compare terms used in other languages. In Italy wild fungi are referred to as funghi comestible; there is no equivalent of “mushroom” in Italian. In Spanish hongo comestible and hongo silvestre are used. Seta is similar in meaning to mushroom but it does not imply that a particular species is edible. In Malawi, bowa describes an edible fungus in the Chewa language, a term that has in essence the same meaning as “wild edible fungus”.


Ethnomycology is the study of people and fungi and is a recent area of academic interest. It traces its roots to a landmark publication entitled Mushrooms, Russia and history (Wasson and Wasson, 1957). This privately published and discursive opus contains a wealth of useful information on the culture and history of wild fungi. Although ethnomycology began with a clear interest in wild edible fungi, later developments saw a strong emphasis on hallucinogenic mushrooms and their cultural significance (Schultes, 1940; Wasson, 1968). While this continues to be an area of understandable intrigue, the spotlight has turned back to wild edible fungi. During the last twenty to thirty years researchers have substantially increased our knowledge of local traditions in Africa, Asia and Mesoamerica (Mexico, Guatemala).

An early distinction was made between mycophilia and mycophobia: In mycophilic societies or cultures, fungi are esteemed and there is a strong and long tradition of popular use. Mycophobic cultures have a minor regard for fungi and they are often actively feared (Wasson and Wasson, 1957). The British colonial record in Africa contains little information about the local use of wild edible fungi, despite the fact that people throughout southern Africa have eaten them for centuries (Morris, 1994; Piearce, 1985).

The history of use of wild edible fungi is well recorded for China, although much information is still in Chinese (Plate 3). China is an example of a mycophilic country while Britain is usually classified as mycophobic. These distinctions are becoming less clear, however, and although there is still a weak tradition of collecting in northern Europe in general, more people gather from the wild than before. Some of this is for commercial reasons (Dyke and Newton, 1999) but immigrants from mycophilic countries have also changed attitudes. There is an expanding group of people who now collect wild edible fungi in the United States, for example. Traditions vary within countries: the central and northern regions of Italy are strongly mycophilic, but the tradition of collecting and consuming wild edible fungi is less strong in the south. Catalonia in Spain has a markedly greater interest in wild edible fungi compared to other regions. Variable traditions also exist in the United Republic of Tanzania (Härkönen, Saarimäki and Mwasumbi, 1994).

Finland represents a particularly interesting meeting of traditions. The historical influence of Swedish culture did little to enthuse local interest in the west but, in the east, Karelian people who came from the Russian Federation to live in Finland brought a much stronger tradition and liking for wild edible fungi (Härkönen, 1998). Russians are noted for their general (though not universal) love of wild edible fungi, as witnessed by large-scale movement of people to forests at the weekend (Filipov, 1998). The Estonians have a saying that describes the Russian passion: “Where there is a mushroom coming up, there is always a Russian waiting for it”. In Finnish Karelia they used to say “Shouting like Russians in [a] mushroom forest”2.

The Latin American tradition is almost wholly restricted to Mexico (see review by Villarreal and Perez-Moreno, 1989). It extends south to Guatemala and briefly into Honduras (House, 2002, personal communication: Wild edible fungi in Honduras) but then abruptly ends, despite the widespread occurrence of pine forests and other trees with edible mycorrhizal fungi. There is little evidence of strong traditions in South America, although studies of native people in Amazonia (Prance, 1984) revealed regular consumption and management of wild edible fungi (though all saprobic). A little-known study from Papua New Guinea (Sillitoe, 1995) reveals a wealth of information on wild edible fungi that hints at wider use in other countries.

Local people reject some species that are edible. Boletes are not eaten in parts of the United Republic of Tanzania as a general rule (Härkönen, 2002). An Italian priest living in Guatemala found that local people were ignoring Boletus edulis, despite their general liking of wild edible fungi. With his encouragement they were able to enjoy a species they had previously ignored (Flores, 2002, personal communication: Guatemala edible fungi). It is not clear whether people in Europe would readily eat Phallus impudicus, however, despite its widespread popularity in China (Plate 9) and some cultures are instinctively fearful of Amanita species. This genus contains deadly poisonous as well as flavoursome species (Plate 7).


A developing country perspective

Most of the information on the biology and ecology of edible macrofungi is based on research carried out in developed countries. The literature is heavily weighted towards perceptions of value and usefulness of wild edible fungi found in the North. Here there is a strong emphasis on valuable types such as true truffles (Tuber spp.), chanterelles and various boletes – of which Boletus edulis is the best known. There is much less knowledge, for example, about the many species of Lactarius or Russula eaten in Africa, from a biological, social or economic perspective.

Income from wild edible fungi is an important source of revenue for rural communities, especially in developing countries. In central southern Africa, WEF are a significant source of nutrition; so too in rural parts of China, India and Mexico. In Europe, WEF are a specialist food, a gourmet item to be savoured infrequently – a reflection of the high prices demanded for prized species. This can mean good incomes for the less well-off in rural parts of Spain and Italy, but the overall importance of WEF to such societies, and indeed the potential for increased local incomes, is small compared to local use and markets in the developing world.

The publication concentrates on improving knowledge about wild edible fungi in developing countries, though research and published information from the North has not been ignored. The experiences in the Pacific northwest of North America have been widely quoted following an expansion of activities on NWFP generally as traditional forestry industries declined and rural communities sought new sources of income. Finland has long promoted a wider use of wild edible fungi as the country emerged from times of economic difficulty, while the demand for matsutake (Tricholoma spp.) in Japan has been of major significance for developing countries such as China, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and even Bhutan.

These examples offer wider insights on a number of different aspects of wild edible fungi, from management of natural resources to collection practices. A comprehensive review of WEF use in the South and in the North is, however, beyond the scope of the current publication. That is not to say that the collection of truffles in Italy or France, or níscalos (Lactarius deliciosus) in Spain, are without economic importance to local people (de Román, 2002, personal communication: Trade in níscalos from North Spain to Catalonia and truffle production), but again these are of lesser significance as a source of income compared with comparable activities in many developing countries.


This publication presents information on the importance of wild edible fungi to people. It includes details of species collected and sold, but there is a particular emphasis on social and economic aspects in an attempt to show how wild edible fungi might contribute to rural livelihoods. There is a wealth of information on the biology and general characteristics of macrofungi but this is only discussed in detail where it is relevant to either people or the use of natural resources.

A broader aim of the publication is to increase awareness of wild edible fungi and to emphasize the ecological link between key species of wild edible fungi and forests. Suggestions are made on how to manage wild edible fungi in a sustainable manner, taking into account the multiple use of forests and other forest users.

There is a strong emphasis on developing countries (the “South”) in many of the discussions, particularly when reviewing how to improve the benefits of wild edible fungi and their sustainable production. Information is also drawn from case studies and experiences with wild edible fungi in developed countries (the “North”). The reasons for concentrating on developing countries are explained in more detail in Box 2.

The publication is divided into five chapters and includes a comprehensive series of tables and annexes. The reader is pointed towards primary and other sources of information, bearing in mind that personal communications with the authors have been an important means of learning more about wild edible fungi. Original publications are often difficult to obtain and general sources such as the excellent literature reviews by Rammeloo and Walleyn (1993) and Walleyn and Rammeloo (1994) are recommended for Africa south of the Sahara. There is a need to undertake similar reviews for other regions of the world, thus increasing awareness of a surprising breadth of published information and stimulating interest in new lines of research.

The characteristics of wild edible fungi are briefly described in Chapter 2 and include key facts on biology, ecology, edibility and cultivation. The emphasis is on general information and few technical details are presented. Major genera are described in outline. Latin names are mostly used throughout the book since there are few common names for wild edible fungi that easily transfer from one country or language to another. The exceptions include matsutake (Tricholoma matsutake but also T. magnivelare and other species), chanterelles (Cantharellus spp.) and porcini (Boletus edulis).

Management issues are explored in Chapter 3, and this includes a review of collectors and the relationship between harvesting and forest management. This section examines some of the broader issues concerning multiple use of forests, productivity of wild edible fungi and access to collecting sites.

Chapter 4 continues the discussions begun in the previous chapter but pays particular attention to people and how wild edible fungi are traded, their importance to diet and nutrition. Trade data, marketing and commercialization are explored, with a final section that briefly summarizes the use of wild edible fungi by region and country.

The final chapter moves from the present to the future. Chapter 5 examines possibilities for future initiatives with an emphasis on practical steps that could be taken to increase benefits to rural people while sustaining production of wild edible fungi and achieving sound forest management. The publication describes known constraints to the sustainable use of wild edible fungi. A forest manager in western China despaired of getting local collectors to adopt less destructive harvesting practices for a prized edible fungus known as matsutake (Winkler, 2002). Such constraints, it is suggested, can be overcome and changes effected, but only if actions are based on a sound knowledge of what people do and why.


Information has been gathered on activities in 85 predominantly, but not exclusively, developing countries (see Box 2). The published and accessible information has varied hugely in terms of emphasis (Table 2), detail and accuracy and has demanded careful examination. There are many mycological publications, for example, that list species as being “edible” but do not elaborate on their local use. General accounts of NWFP talk about “mushrooms” without specifying which types.

Over 800 papers, books, newspaper articles, personal communications, Web sites and miscellaneous other sources of information were consulted. Information on wild edible fungi is spread across many different disciplines (Table 2). Each discipline represents a different set of interests but also with some overlap. This is the first time that a broad review of wild edible fungi has been attempted and there is undoubtedly still much to learn, particularly from the Russian and Chinese literature. Information about wild edible fungi in the Russian Federation was only available because of a translation made by Dr Seona Anderson of a key text (Vasil’eva, 1978).


Disciplines and areas of activity containing information on wild useful fungi



Mycology, including mycorrhizas

The study of fungi (mycology) includes molecular biology, biochemistry and more traditional topics such as ecology and taxonomy. Published information generally has little detail about the use of fungi by people, particularly the social and economic aspects. Mycorrhizal studies have a combined interest in fungi and plants. Edible ectomycorrhizal fungi have only recently emerged as a subdiscipline within a much larger area of study.

Field biology and natural history

Field guides contain descriptions of species and photographs and are used mostly for identification purposes. The majority of guides are published in the North and therefore have a limited use in developing countries. A few guides are specifically for edible fungi. Natural history publications have provided some information on uses of WEF by people, though this group is often ignored or dealt with fleetingly.

Cultivation of mushrooms

There is an extensive literature on cultivated mushrooms. Regular meetings are held which have strong commercial support. There has been recent interest (e.g. Mshigeni and Chang, 2000) in the introduction of small-scale production units to developing countries and a small but growing literature on managing natural areas for production of matsutake and truffles (Federation-Francaise-des-Trufficulteurs, 2001).


Ethnomycology is a relatively young area of investigation. Topics include the cultural, ceremonial and medicinal uses of fungi by people. Ethnomycology was originally dominated by the study of hallucinogenic mushrooms and their cultural significance and little attention has been paid to the uses of WEF by people.

Nutrition, human health, food security

The literature on nutritional value is surprisingly large though analytical approaches vary and comparison of results is difficult. Most analyses have involved cultivated mushroom species with only a few wild edible species included. There has been a huge expansion of scientific research on cultivated, medicinal mushrooms, mushrooms as dietary supplements and “nutriceuticals”, but this is of limited relevance to development initiatives. There are few studies that have considered wild edible fungi in the context of food security, though this angle deserves closer attention.

Markets and trade

Data on volumes and values of wild edible fungi collected are weak, patchy and often unreliable. Global estimates of trade are open to interpretation and unreliable sources may acquire a spurious credibility by repeat references. Although caution is needed when reviewing marketing data there has been more accurate documentation in recent years.

Wood and non-wood forest products

Wild edible fungi appear regularly in NWFP studies but individual species are often not mentioned (if ever identified). Specific and detailed interest has grown as the result of activities in the Pacific northwest of the United States and Canada and elsewhere. General NWFP studies are often a disappointing source of information on wild edible fungi.

1 See Box 1 for a discussion of terminology used in this book.

2 Information provided by Marja Härkönen.

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