Pine mushrooms provide a source of income in various parts of British Columbia from August to November.
This summer, you may come across signs like this one, when people are mostly travelling in-province. The arrow points to a mushroom depot where buyers pay cash to wild mushroom foragers and commercial harvesters for BC pine mushrooms. Each day the harvest is flown out of the country, usually to Japan, where the mushrooms’ freshness ensures premium prices.
At these depots or buying stations, the pine mushrooms are sorted into different grades depending on maturity and how far the cap is opened.
The highest grade, called “buttons”, has a fully closed cap and untrimmed stem The veil between the cap and the stem is unbroken so you can’t see the gills. The lowest grade has a fully open cap and is often deteriorating with physical or insect damage. The mushroom pickers/harvesters are paid in cash, based on the daily price set by mushroom companies for each grade (Moran, 2009).
The Japanese have prized matsutake (Japanese pine mushroom) for centuries. It is popular for gift giving, to celebrate autumn, and other ceremonial purposes. But the productivity in Japan is dwindling. It has been slowly declining since the 1940s due to a number of factors such as blight caused by the pine nematode or pine weevil and forest use practices.
In spite of vast research, the cultivation of matsutake has been mostly unsuccessful (Saito & Mitsumata, 2008; Yananaka, Yamada, & Furukawa, 2020).). Commercial demand is being met by increased importation of pine mushrooms from other countries, including Canada.
The pine mushrooms grown in BC and other parts of the Pacific Northwest are similar in appearance, taste and texture to the declining matsutake and are often called matsutake. However, genetic analysis has revealed that the Japanese matsutake (Tricholoma matsutake) is not identical to pine mushrooms found in British Columbia (Tricholoma murrillianum) (Lim et al., 2003). According to Trudell et al. (2017), the range of Tricholoma murrillianum extends from the Rocky Mountains to the West Coast. Tricholoma magnivelare, another variety, is only found in eastern North America, and Tricholoma mesoamericanum in Mexico. They have the same genus Tricholoma, in the order of gilled mushrooms with white spore print, fleshy stems, and gills that are attached to the stem, often by means of a slight “notch”. All are referred to as pine mushrooms (Kuo, n.d.).
The pine mushroom has a white or slightly yellowish cap and the gills are white when fresh. If it is a “button” a veil will cover the gills and form a ring on the stalk. What is unique about the pine mushroom is the smell. It has been described as aromatic, spicy, cinnamony, pungent, earthy and/or sweet. It’s said that an experienced picker can smell a stand of pine mushrooms even when they can’t be seen (Sierra Club BC and Coastal First Nations Turning Point, 2009).
I sampled pine mushrooms only once when a picker gave me some low-grade ones rejected by a buyer. We fried them in butter which was probably a mistake as the “incomparable aroma is lost if it is sautéed like other mushrooms” (Arora, 1986, p. 87). They are apparently better grilled or roasted.
Pine mushrooms are forest fungi, and like all forest fungi are unable to make their own food. They have to obtain sugars and carbohydrates from other sources by various means such as invading live trees and other plants, by decomposing dead materials such as needles, leaves, and woody debris, and by forming intimate relationships with plants where both the fungus and plant benefit from the relationship.
The pine mushroom uses a symbiotic relationship described as mycorrhizal, where a fungus becomes intimately established inside and around the plant roots of living trees. In a mycorrhizal relationship the fungus exchanges soil nutrients and water for sugars and carbohydrates produced by the plant. It acts as an extended root system for the plant, providing access to water and soil nutrients that would not otherwise be available (Gamiet, Ridenour & Philpot, 1998). This makes them different from a saprophytic type of symbiotic relationship which feeds on dead trees.
Often the fungi are influenced by the host plant. On the Pacific coast of North America, pine mushrooms are found predominantly under mixed stands of lodgepole pines, western hemlock, spruce, and Douglas-fir. They are often found near huckleberries. They mostly need old-growth forests and coarse-textured, well-drained soil (Berch & Wiensczyk, 2001).
Pine mushrooms usually grow alone or scattered in groups on the forest floor from mid-August to early December, if the conditions are right (enough water and the temperature is right for them to grow). They sprout daily with the cool nights and warm days of late summer.
Economically, the pine mushroom is the most important species of wild mushroom in British Columbia. Although Indigenous peoples and foragers of wild foods have picked the mushrooms for human consumption, commercial harvesting for export has a shorter history. It is only in the last four decades that the export industry for pine mushrooms has become widely recognized. Large-scale commercial harvesting of pine mushrooms occurs in the northwest, in forests near Terrace and the Nass River Valley accounting for 60% of BC’s production (Gamiet, Ridenour & Philpot, 1998). Pine mushrooms also grow in central BC near Bella Coola and the Anahim Lake basin, the Sunshine Coast, Vancouver Island, Pemberton Valley, and the West Kootenays. The harvesting season generally begins in mid-to-late August in the northwest and Anahim Lake areas, and the season increases and moves south and east. By October the harvesting season usually begins on Vancouver Island and in the Powell River area. By the end of November the pine mushroom harvesting season in southern British Columbia is normally over.
Mushrooms and other fungi used as food, medicines, and rituals have been a part of many cultures throughout history. In BC, mushrooms have been a traditional food for many indigenous people (Turner, 1995; 2001). Commercial harvesters and local forest foragers, like the First Nations, are stewards of the forest. They protect their patches and make sure not to disturb fine ecological balance that produces their product. They pick with minimal excavation and disturbance to the soil, litter, or moss layers, and replace the soil and moss cover to ensure continued production of pine mushrooms for harvest in the future.
In the early days of picking pine mushrooms for profit, their harvest was sometimes described as a “gold rush”. Transient pickers or people out looking to make quick money showed no respect for territorial boundaries and used ATV’s or tramped through the forests disturbing the forest floor, even using rakes which permanently destroy the habitat (Gamiet, Ridenour & Philpot, 1998; Moran, 2009; Stirling, 1998/9).
Thus, conflicts over the years have resulted in some First Nations bands in BC closing their territories (Lamb-Yorski , 2018) or requiring pickers to get a permit (Sprickerhoff, 2018). There have been calls for greater regulations (Turner, 2001) such as the forest development plan developed by the Nisga’a Nation (Sierra Club BC and Coastal First Nations Turning Point, 2009).
It is important to know the rules of mushroom picking in BC. According to the BC Government Reference Map for mushroom picking, mushroom picking is allowed on provincial Crown land without a permit, but it is illegal to pick mushrooms in a provincial or national park. On private land, pickers must get permission from the property owner to access the land and harvest mushrooms from it. Permission to pick mushrooms is required, on leased public land, on private land and on First Nations reserve lands.
Mushroom picking is NOT ALLOWED:
- in national or provincial parks
- on Department of National Defence lands (federal)
- in protected areas, such as ecological reserves or special reserves
- in recreation areas, including provincial recreation sites and trails
- in areas specifically closed to protect sensitive resource values or for the purposes of public safety
Commercial harvesters and wild foragers also know their fungi. Pine mushroom look-a-likes have been showing up in mushroom depots – the more toxic Smith’s amanita (Amanita smithiana). These mushrooms have been found in areas where edible western pine (Tricholoma murrillianum) mushrooms also grow (Griffin, 2019). The University of B.C.’s zoology site on edible and poisonous mushrooms of coastal B.C. and the Pacific Northwest, says that eating Smith’s amanita mushrooms can result in kidney failure within two to six days (Else et al., n.d.).
Therefore, “be safe” and “when in doubt, throw out” when picking and eating wild mushrooms. See a previous BCFHN mushroom blog for further suggestions.
Arora, D. (1986). Mushrooms Demystified. Ten Speed Press.
Berch, S.M. & Wiensczyk. (2001). Ecological description and classification of some pinemushroom (Tricholoma magnivelare) habitat in British Columbia. Research Report 19 Ministry of Forest, Lands, and Natural Resource Operations, Research, Innovation and Knowledge Management Branch. http://www.for.gov.bc.ca/hfd/pubs/Docs/Rr/Rr19.htm
BC Government Reference Map For Mushroom Picking, https://www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/industry/crown-land-water/crown-land/crown-land-uses/mushroom-picking
British Columbia Ministry of Forestry and Range, Forest Practices Branch (nd). Harvesting Edible Wild Mushrooms in BC., https://www.for.gov.bc.ca/hfp/publications/00028/harvest.htm
British Columbia Ministry of Forests and Range (1995). Botanical Forest Products in British Columbia – An Overview. https://www.for.gov.bc.ca/hfp/publications/00002/chapt1.htm
Else, C., Vellinga, E. C., Kroeger, P., Le Renard, L., Ceška, A, Ceška, O, & Berbee, O. (n.d.). Mushrooms Up! Edible and Poisonous Species of Coastal BC and the Pacific Northwest. UBC Dept of Zoology Beaty Biodiversity Museum. https://www.zoology.ubc.ca/~biodiv/mushroom/
Gamiet, S. Ridenour H. & Philpot, F. (1998) An Overview of Pine Mushrooms in the Skeena-Bulkley Region, The Northwest Institute for Bioregional Research, Smithers, BC
Griffin, K. (2019, Oct. 16). Eating poisonous pine mushroom look-alike can cause kidney failure, https://vancouversun.com/news/local-news/eating-poisonous-pine-mushroom-look-alike-can-cause-kidney-failure
Kuo, M. (n.d.). Tricholoma murrillianum, Mushroom expert.com. https://www.mushroomexpert.com/tricholoma_murrillianum.html
Lamb-Yorski, M. (2018, May 23). Mushroom picking in Tsilhqot’in territory to require a permit. Williams Lake Tribune. https://www.wltribune.com/news/mushroom-picking-in-tsilhqotin-territory-to-require-a-permit/
Lim, S. R., Fischer, A., Berbee, M. & Berch S. M. (2003). Is the booted tricholoma in British Columbia really Japanese matsutake? BC Journal of Ecosystems and Management, 3(1). http://www.forrex.org/jem/2003/vol3/no1/art7.pdf
Moran, S. (2009, July 12). It’s pine mushroom season in B.C. Northword Magazine. http://northword.ca/august-2009/pine-mania
Saito, H. & Mitsumata, G. (2008). Bidding Customs and Habitat Improvement for Matsutake (Tricholoma matsutake) in Japan. Economic Botany, 62(3), 257–268.
Sierra Club BC and Coastal First Nations Turning Point (2009). Going Wild! Teaching about Wild Products from BC’s Coastal Rainforests. https://sierraclub.bc.ca/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/Going-Wild_Wild-products_Educators-guide_4-7.pdf
Sprickerhoff, T. (2018, Apr. 11). Esdilagh First Nation cites environmental, cultural concerns over landscape. Williams Lake Tribune. https://www.wltribune.com/news/esdilagh-bans-mushroom-harvest-in-west-fraser-complex-fire-area/
Stirling, J. (1998/9). The Politics of Mushrooms: The annual pine mushroom picking season in northwestern BC puts the region’s forest management in the spotlight. Logging and Sawmilling Journal. https://forestnet.com/LSJissues/Dec_Jan_99/forestry.html
Trudell, S. A., Xu, J., Saar, I., Justo, A., & Cifuentes, J. (2017). North American matsutake: names clarified and a new species described. Mycologia, 109(3), 379-390.
Turner, N.J. 1995. Food plants of coastal First Peoples. UBC Press, Vancouver, B.C.
Turner, N. J. (2001). ” Doing it right”: Issues and practices of sustainable harvesting of non-timber forest products relating to First Peoples in British Columbia. Journal of Ecosystems and Management, 1(1). http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.551.7126&rep=rep1&type=pdf
Yananaka, T., Yamada, A. & Furukawa, H. (2020). Advances in the cultivation of the highly-prized ectomycorrhizal mushroom Tricholoma matsutake. Mycoscience, 61(2), 49-57.