MUSHROOM STUDY TOUR OF CHINA:  October  1983

A Few Illustrated Mushroom Highlights

All text and pictures by Gary Lincoff

 

INTRODUCTION: The beginning of October, 1983, Manny Salzman, Andy Weil and I lead a group of nearly 40 people on a three week mushroom study tour of the People’s Republic of China. We know no one in China. I have written letters to people I know about in Beijing, Shanghai, Kunming, and Canton (Guangzhou), people who are involved in some way in mycology. We choose the beginning of October because we think that while there might be more mushrooms fruiting in late August or September, it would be cooler later and still mushroom season. We don’t know what to expect but we hope that however difficult it might prove to be to communicate with the Chinese, if we can get into the forests and woodlands of China, our group will find mushrooms, a primary goal of our trip.




sellers of boletes -- photo by John Gregg, 1982



 Trip Leaders: Gary and Irene Lincoff, Emanuel and Joanne Salzman, Andrew Weil; special guest: Paul Stamets

Trip Participants: Harley and Catherine (Kit Scates) Barnhart, John Bergman, Giorgio Cavallon, Ulrich and Rose Danckers, Robert Demarest, Gertrude Espenscheid, Michael Forbes, Bill and Louise Freedman, Lee Grotte, Herb and Norma Harper, Guy Hartman, Marilyn Jorrie, Lillian Krapin, Lorraine Lerman, Lois Long, Benjamin Maleson, Steve Morgan, Margaret Morris, Richard and Peony Munger, Kim Patterson, Mahlon Perkins, Jr., Esther Schrank, Arden Scott, W. Page Taggert, Tom Thacker, Rachel Tworkov, Marlene Venar

 

Planned Itinerary: Our plan is to visit Beijing, Shanghai, Kunming, Canton (Guangzhou), and Hong Kong, to meet with our counterparts in China, to hunt mushrooms, and to see the sights, like the Great Wall and The Forbidden City.

 

Some of the mycologists we meet:

Beijing: Ching Yung Joyce Chang

Shanghai: Wang Ming-qi

Kunming: Zang Mu

Canton (Guangzhou): Lu Da-jing

Hong Kong: S. T. Chang, D. A. Griffiths

 

NARITA AIRPORT, JAPAN: The flight from the US lands at Narita airport, in Japan. We stay overnight and fly the next day to Beijing, China. After a very long flight we are eager to stretch our legs and see what’s what in the short time we are to stay in Japan. We visit the Narita Botanical Garden and the Naritasan Temple, and we walk the grounds of the Nikko Narita Hotel. Being mushroom hunters, we collect more than 30 species in a couple of hours. Our most intriguing find is a green-staining Gymnopilus aeruginosus. This seems to be the mushroom that James Sanford wrote up in an article in “Economic Botany” in 1971, called “Japan’s ‘Laughing Mushrooms’,” a relative of what we in northeastern North America call the “Big Laughing Gym.”

Narita Botanical Garden, Narita Japan

Gymnopilus aeruginosus





BEIJING: After an easygoing day in Japan between flights, we arrive at the airport in Beijing and come face to face with the foreign nature of our enterprise. Our large group is swamped by a vast number of people who look and dress and speak differently. We are given forms to sign, one of which says that we are not bringing any drugs into the PRC. It’s not clear to anyone just what we are signing our names to. A Korean woman on our trip, who was a nurse during the Korean War, is so scared to be in China she is crying; this is her first encounter with the Chinese since that war.

          No one in our group speaks Chinese. We have two tour guides who speak Mandarin and encourage us to stay with them and to stay together as a group. The first word we learn in Chinese – that we remember - is “dong-ou,” the Chinese word for the Shiitake mushroom (Lentinula edodes). We feel we’re making progress.

          Our first evening in China coincides with the Chinese celebration of anniversary of their War of Liberation in 1949. We go to Tiananmen Square to see the festivities. We see huge 25 foot high portraits of Marx, Engels and Lenin, three Caucasians being honored in the Chinese capital. There are no streetlights and Beijing at night is very dark.


Manny & Joanne Salzman on Tiananmen Square

          The next day we notice that everyone is uniformly dressed in drab blue, tan, gray or light green. The streets show more individuality than the people. Each street seems to have its own tree type: Sophora japonica, London plane, Ginkgo, poplar, Mountain ash. The streets are filled with bicycles and trucks, no cars. Traffic is directed by a man standing on a platform in the center of the intersections; there are no traffic lights. Crossing the street is a contact sport.

          One morning Irene and I get up at dawn and go out for a run. We leave the broad boulevards for more interesting scenery, and within 15 minutes or so we find ourselves lost in a meandering warren of one-story dwellings, something that looks like a movie set for a 19th Century film about China. The people and their dwellings and the dirt paths of their neighborhood all look the same light brownish color. We can’t find a way out, a way back to the main street. Nobody understands a word of English. We don’t know to take a card from our hotel, one that gives its name and address in Chinese. Saying “Friendship Hotel” means nothing to anyone. Eventually, we find a path out, and find a Japanese tourist, who also speaks no English, but understands what we want and points us the way to our hotel!

          If that isn’t sufficient to convince us to stay together as a group, a lunch on our own does the trick. A group of 8 or so of us go to Beihai Park, the central park in Beijing. At lunchtime we look around for a restaurant. We find one, even one where there are Caucasian tourists eating, but we are not allowed in: only tour groups with reservations can be seated and served. We notice a group of Chinese lined up to get food. When we get to the counter, we can’t speak a word of Chinese. I point to a dish in a display area showing the various dishes the restaurant serves. I’m given the display dish I point to – and it is food frozen to the plate. We don’t know how to explain what we want. We see another line of people and join that one, but discover that you need to buy a ticket first. There’s another line for that. Eventually, we get tickets and food: dumplings. There are no tables and we sit in the park on the ground to eat our lunch. The dumplings are soup dumplings and our first bite into them splashes soup all over our clothes. We are having a difficult time adjusting to Chinese ways.

          As for mushrooms, well, we don’t see any in the park, and there aren’t any areas accessible to us in Beijing to look for them.

Our most interesting mushroom “find” in Beijing is in the lobby of our hotel. There is a glass covered display of natural medicines, like bear paws, but also  mushrooms, such as Monkey Head (Hericium) and Antler Mushroom (Ganoderma).


Beijing hotel (below) and an exhibit of natural medicinals in the lobby (above)
Welcoming toast at dinner




Great Wall of China
mouth artist at the Great Wall



          En route to the Great Wall, we pass a man collecting inky caps on a lawn. Although we see mountains in the distance, we are herded as a tour group and must do what the tour guides say. We are not allowed to wander away to look for mushrooms. During a tour of the Forbidden City, despite its almost total lack of plants and soil, we find shaggy manes (Coprinus comatus) and Schizophyllum commune. We get excited by any mushroom we see. We see pandas at the Beijing Zoo but no mushrooms. We are looking forward to the possibilities of mushroom hunting in Shanghai. On the way out to the airport we pass a large pine reforestation project, and wonder what mushrooms might be growing with them.

 


SHANGHAI: Shanghai is warmer than Beijing, and it gets more than twice the yearly rainfall, at 45”. We see avenues of plane trees, Ginkgo, camphor (Cinnamomum camphora) and a pine tree relative, Keteleeria. As Shanghai is the fashion capital of China, we see people dressing differently than the drab uniforms worn in Beijing. It is also a very large and crowded city. Our plan is to meet with a local mycologist, and also visit a local commune, and take a train to the nearby garden town of Suzhou, where there are said to be more than 100 gardens on display.

          We go to Fudan U. to meet Dr. Wang Ming qi whose 1938 book on the Fungi of China that I discover in the library of the NYBG leads us to believe there is taxonomic work being done on the mushrooms of China. Dr. Wang is surprised when we show up at his office. I introduce myself and ask him if he hasn’t received my letter about our impending visit. He says he has but he hasn’t answered me because he hasn’t been involved in mycology since 1949, the year of Liberation. He tells us that he studied mycology in America in the 30’s, but that after Liberation he changed his life around and studied virology, something he thought of as more useful for the people.

          While in Shanghai we have exchange seminars with local mycologists, visit their institutes, learn about their cultivation techniques for growing edible mushrooms, but we find very few mushrooms on any of these visits.





Paul Stamets & Andy Weil. Benji Maleson at Shanghai commune. Soochow street scene. Mushroom at bottom of tapestry.



KUNMING (Yunnan province): Kunming is known as China’s “Spring City,” something we miss by visiting it in October. But, at 6200 feet above sea level, and with about 45” of rain a year, it’s cooler and greener than either Beijing or Shanghai. Street trees include Camellias and Silk Oaks (a species of Grevillea, a genus in the beautiful Proteaceae family). Unlike the uniformity of the people in Beijing and the fashion conscious dress of Shanghai, Kunming seems to be composed of many minorities, people who not only look different from the Chinese but dress in more rural and culturally defined ways.

          Some of these people line the roads of the town and spread out their wares on the ground for purchase by anyone passing by. We find mushrooms for sale along such a road. We buy some of every kind we see. These include oyster mushrooms, Boletus edulis, Lactarius sanguineus, Russula virescens, Thelephora ganba jun, and Shiraia bambusicola. The latter is a traditional medicinal fungus used in China, and one that recently has been verified by the methods of western medicine to have a number of protective and curative properties. When we return with our collection to our hotel, The Green Lake, the chef is mostly interested in the one mushroom we think is the least edible of the lot, the Thelephora. He scissors it into extremely thin strips and serves it to us as a pasta for lunch. It is very tasty.

Kunming: grain drying in courtyard:
Kunming: haystacks:


Kunming houses
Kunming street


mushrooms for sale on the street



 
 


          Kim Patterson finds termite mushrooms for sale. The small ones are clustered together and wrapped in paper. The largest ones are larger than any gilled mushrooms we know. This one is known as Termitomyces robustus. This is also cooked for us, and we are surprised that it has both the taste and texture of chicken, not mushroom-like at all. Later, on the plane from Kunming to Canton (Guangzhou), we talk with two stewardesses on the CAAC flight who show us dried Termitomyces they purchased in Kunming. They are bringing them to a friend whose mother in northern China is suffering from a cancer. We can’t learn how it would be used or how effective it is thought to be.







          We meet Zang Mu, the mycologist at the Kunming Institute of Botany. He takes us on a mushroom hunt in the nearby forest. We find more than 80 mushrooms, by far our best mushroom foray in China. The best edibles include chanterelles (Cantharellus cibarius), Boletus edulis, and Lactarius hygrophoroides, L. deliciosus, and L. sanguifluus. We also find the deadly Galerina autumnalis, and a number of toxic Inocybe species, as well as several species of Cortinarius.

          Dr. Zang shows us his laboratory. We see collections of mushrooms in jars preserved in a fluid. One remarkable one is Tricholoma mongolicum, a relative of the matsutake mushroom. We also see mushrooms being cultivated on compost blocks, including a large Fistulina hepatica.

 
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from left to right, row by row:

mushrooms preserved in jars
Tricholoma mongolicum in a jar

Boletus edulis
Thelephora ganba jun
Lactarius sanguifluus
oyster mushrooms
Shiraia bambusicola


Stone Forest outside Kunming



CANTON (GUANGZHOU): We arrive in Canton and discover that our tour guides speak only Mandarin, not Cantonese, and we have to acquire someone who speaks the local language! Some parts of Canton resemble NYC’s Chinatown: it’s a hot climate and the people are wearing comfortable hot weather clothes. The streets are narrow and crowded and their marketplace is organized taxonomically: flowers are sold on one street, vegetables and fruits on another, fish on a third, all manner of meat on a fourth, live amphibians, live birds, live monkeys, on other streets. It seems that anything that can be eaten can be found for sale on one of these streets. That live monkeys are sold to be killed in special restaurants where tables have a hole in the center where the monkey brain is exposed and consumed, is not something we are used to seeing. Our group buys an owl, and we have a ritual release in a local park, although it’s not likely that that owl will be free for long. Here it is, held by Bob Demarest:


          We meet Dr. Lu Da-jing, a victim of the Cultural Revolution in the 60’s, whose career and life were disrupted when he was forced for years to become a pig farmer. He’s a mycologist now, and he shows us a cultivation site where his institute is growing various mushrooms, including a Hericium, a Ganoderma lucidum, and a stinkhorn! The stinkhorn is a new species, Phallus rubrivolvatus, and it is odorless! It is the stinkhorn that is served at State banquets in China, and at select restaurants. It was served to President Nixon on his visit to China, and also to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. We are honored to be served this mushroom in a soup, but it doesn’t seem to have any flavor or much texture.
 









left  to right, row by row:

Dictyophora rubrivolvata cultivation
one in the hand of Ulrich Danckers

Andy Weil with Hericium being cultivated

Ganoderma lucidum cultivation

Fistulina hepatica fruiting out of a compost block

         In an exchange seminar session, Dr. Lu gives a lecture on the mushrooms of the area, emphasizing the edible and medicinal qualities of these mushrooms. He goes into some detail on  Cordyceps, especially those species that attack insects. Cordyceps sinensis is a standard medicinal fungus in the Chinese pharmacopeia, but it is a large genus and we find other species on our mushroom hunts in and around Canton (Guanghou).

 





Canton Street. Gary, Paul Stamets and Bill Freedman. Mushroom hunt. Volvariella volvacea at the market:










HONG KONG: Hong Kong is a short train ride across the border from the PRC. The difference between the two is immediately apparent. Hong Kong has a downtown that is as modern as any Western city. We even notice a McDonalds as we are driven to our hotel.

 

          We hear about a good vegetarian restaurant in Hong Kong that is said to have a number of mushroom dishes on its menu. It does, and one of them is the Bamboo Fungus, the stinkhorn that we saw and sampled in Canton (Guangzhou). There is no price beside it, much the way there is no price beside lobster in some upscale American restaurants. We ask how much it costs. The waiter, taking a look at us in our mushroom hunting clothes, tells us we can’t afford it. When we insist on ordering it, he ignores us. Our meal is very good but it’s not what we want to order. We hunt mushrooms in Hong Kong but it is too hot and dry to find any.

 


SUMMARY of the mushroom part of our tour:

          We learn that however strange to us a country like China appears to be, the street trees and mushrooms are very much like our own. While we never learn to communicate with the Chinese who do not speak English, we discover, thanks to Benji Maleson and Manny & Joanne Salzman, that non-verbal means of communicating can work wonders: Benji blew up balloons for the children, and mesmerized a number of workers on a building rooftop by using a straw as a musical instrument. Manny & Joanne always attracted a crowd of children when they blew soap bubbles. Some things just don’t seem to translate, however, like Andy Weil trying to explain to a Chinese translator at an exchange seminar how the psychoactive compound psilocybin works in the brain. And Gary with students and his phrasebook.




Our best and almost only mushroom collecting is in Kunming.

          We find a variety of familiar wild mushrooms sold in the markets of Kunming. We also find giant termite mushrooms sold there. Cultivated mushrooms include the big 3: the jelly Wood Ear (Auricularia auricula), shiitake [dong-ou in Chinese] (Lentinula edodes), and the Paddi-straw mushroom (Volvariella volvacea), but we also see cultivation plots of the Bear’s Head Hydnum (Hericium erinaceus), the Ling-chih (Ganoderma lucidum), and an odorless, edible (!) stinkhorn, the Bamboo Fungus (Phallus rubrivolvata). We even find this stinkhorn on the menu in a restaurant in Hong Kong.