A Few Illustrated Mushroom Highlights

Fall, 1986

by Gary Lincoff


INTRODUCTION: Prior to the 1985 Mushroom Study Tour of northern India and Nepal, Jason Salzman toured the proposed route to evaluate the likelihood of a successful trip. We think we should do the same before we propose a mushroom study tour of South India. So, Gary and Irene Lincoff, Emanual and Joanne Salzman, and David Arora and his wife Judith plan to meet south of Bombay in September, 1986. We choose this time because we think this will be best for seeing the most mushrooms in this area. We schedule visits to a number of hill stations in South India, including Ootacamund and Kodaikanal. In addition, we want to visit a tiger reserve, and a number of scenic sights along the way. Although our scouting trip is pleasant enough, compared with last year’s tour of northern India and Nepal, we find too few mushrooms to justify organizing a group trip to South India.



          Irene and I fly into Bombay (now Mumbai) in the middle of the night. As we discover, it’s a city that never sleeps, a vast, sprawling human drama unfolding on the shores of the Arabian Sea. We drive through town. It is hot, humid and, at 3 in the morning, people are everywhere, walking about, talking, playing music and lying on the ground wherever there is space. We meet Manny and Joanne Salzman at the airport for a 6am flight to Coimbatore. From there, we drive up to Ootacamund, one of the premiere hill stations in South India.



          Ootacamund is up at more than 7300 feet above sea level. It is chilly, breezy, and rainy! [It receives about 50” of rain annually.] It also seems to be barely populated compared to Bombay. It is a forested area, and there are pines and Eucalyptus among the mycorrhizal trees that we see. A quick walk about turns up the ubiquitous Laccaria laccata, a Russula and a Scleroderma. The rest are decomposers on the ground or on wood, like Agaricus, Entoloma, and Gymnopilus. The next morning we do a search of the grounds about the hotel. We find lawn fungi like Bolbitius vitellinus, as well as an immature giant puffball, Calvatia sp., and some Lycoperdon perlatum. The most exciting find is a blue-staining Psilocybe species, which is especially interesting because we haven’t seen reports of this genus in South India.

          We go up to Dottabetto at 8600 feet. There we find common grassland and wood debris mushrooms, like Coprinus plicatilis and Psathyrella candolleana, as well as Cortinarius under Eucalyptus. We find about 30 different mushrooms for two days of collecting.




Manny with sacred cow
mushroom similar to a Cortinarius

mushroom-like fruit
Ooty from below


          We drive down from Ootacamund to Cochin, a port city on the Arabian Sea. It is raining on the way down and there are lots of cars, people and cows on the road. Cochin was a vital center for Jewish life in India before the establishment of the State of Israel. Now there are very few Jews left in Cochin. One we meet is an MD, Dr. Blossom Simon. The only mushrooms we find are Marasmius oreades, a species of Coprinus and Conocybe tenera.

Manny & Joanne Salzman, Irene Lincoff, and Dr. Blossom Simon, the last Jew in Cochin


          We meet David Arora and his wife, Judith, and proceed to the Periyar Tiger Reserve, by ferry and bus and boat and van. Periyar is a large wildlife sanctuary in southwest India. It’s situated at 3000 feet above sea level, and has a high annual rainfall of 100”. Most of its forested area is composed of tropical evergreens, trees we’re unfamiliar with, and find difficult to identify because they’re so tall. In addition to 40 tigers roaming about the preserve, there are countless elephants, wild boar, barking deer, Indian bison, monkeys, and so on. We come for the mushrooms. We are told to keep our eyes open. We are not told what to do in case of an attack by any animal. It turns out that the only animal that attacks us is the ubiquitous leech. We walk the trails picking mushrooms and picking up leeches along the way. With our attention somewhat diverted by the anticipated charge of hidden wildlife, we still manage to collect a dozen species, including a blue-staining Psilocybe on wood, an attractive Agaricus, some large Macrolepiotas, and some tiny fringed cup fungi. We are puzzled that we see so few mushrooms in so forested an area with such a high rainfall.

Davis Arora on top of bus

Jungle sleeps during the day, wakes up during the night
forest trail

Agaricus sp.
Psilocybe sp.



          From the Periyar Tiger Reserve we take a bus to Kodaikanal, a hill station resort town at about 6300 feet above sea level. Parts of the town, especially around its central lake, look as well-groomed as NYC’s Central Park. The weather is clear and cool, a great relief from the heat and humidity of the lowlands. It hasn’t rained lately but its annual rainfall is 65”, and it’s so pleasant to walk about that we take little notice of the dryness.

          David takes us to the spot where there had been a hospital, the one in which he was born! The site is near the edge of the Kodaikanal plateau, and it looks out, seemingly forever, over the valley below and beyond.


          A mushroom foray in a local pine woods nets us the Fly-Agaric, Amanita muscaria, as well as a Suillus, some Russulas, Sclerodermas, and a variety of decomposers.

          Walking through town we notice a woman in a beautiful sari sitting on the ground near a dusty intersection, holding a basket in her lap. She is surrounded by other women, standing, and similarly dressed. She is selling something in her basket. A glance tells us they’re mushrooms! She is selling a smooth, green-capped Russula. It’s something close to Russula cyanoxantha. We buy some and strike up a conversation with her. When she learns about our interest in mushrooms, she shows us what she also has in the sash of her sari. She’s got a number of blue-staining Psilocybes. It seems that European tourists who are on their way for a holiday in nearby Goa, stop off in Kodaikanal first, and she is there to sell them what they’ll take with them to Goa to party. We buy some of these, also. The green Russulas are cooked for us with our dinner, and are very good.

woman in sari selling mushrooms

with basket of Russulas

Russula sp., green, smooth cap
Psilocybe species, was hidden in woman's sari

women carrying wood on their heads
forested park 25 miles away

pine trees
Amanita muscaria (above)--Scleroderma sp. (below

          Manny and Joanne leave for New Delhi, and the next evening, David and Judith and Irene and I try the Psilocybe. We have rented a cottage for the night, a change from hotel life. The cottage is sparsely furnished but it comes with its own firewood, and we are promised hot tea in the morning. We find getting to the next morning more difficult than we had imagined. The mushrooms make us jolly but we feel rooted to the floor, and we feel colder than we might have otherwise. We burn all the firewood we have and, with great effort, even go outdoors in the dark trying to locate something to burn. Under the influence it is very hard to tell what is burnable. Inside the cottage, we eye a small wooden table, the chairs about it, a chest of drawers, even the wooden bed frames. Everything we mention makes us laugh all the more. How we manage not to burn down the cottage is anyone’s guess.

          The next morning we part ways, and Irene and I take a bus for Berijam Lake, a large lake with a surrounding pine forest about 20 miles or so from Kodaikanal. On the bus a girl and her mother notice our mushroom designed t-shirts. We converse and learn that they are off to collect edible mushrooms for a restaurant in town that caters to foreign tourists. So much of what we learn on trips like these is totally unexpected.

          On arriving at the lake, we can hardly get off the bus as people are getting on. They are throwing their bags through the open windows onto seats they want to hold, or even climbing through the windows themselves. We squeeze off the bus, which quickly fills up and pulls out. We ask someone nearby when the next bus will leave and learn that the bus leaves every day at the same time. We turn about and discover we are in a beautiful setting. Unfortunately, except for a tiny teahouse where the bus stopped, there doesn’t appear to be any other buildings. Eventually, we are taken to meet the forester in charge of this area. He is puzzled that we have come with no means of returning to Kodaikanal. We tell him we plan on walking through the forest and then walking back to town. He won’t hear of it. A woman on foot along that stretch of road is not safe. We learn from him that the forest he’s in charge of is a planted pine forest. A forest is something useful, utilitarian. What we think of as forest is what he calls “bush,” which to him is a worthless mixture of trees and shrubs. We walk about but find very few mushrooms anywhere. As beautiful as the site is, it hasn’t been receiving the kind of rain we experienced earlier in the trip. By late afternoon a number of trucks are rolling through the area on the road to Kodaikanal. We are offered a lift in the cab of one of these trucks and manage to return to Kodaikanal by nightfall.



          We leave the next day for Madurai, a city filled with highly ornamented pyramid-like temples, the oldest city on the Indian peninsula, located near the southern tip of the country. Elephants wander the streets, even putting their trunks into the open windows of buses, begging coins from passengers! We are now only 9 degrees north of the equator, and less than 500 feet above sea level, so it is hot. And, though it gets 35” of rainfall a year, at the moment it is dry. We find no mushrooms, and few areas to even look for them. We return to New Delhi for a few days of rest and relaxation, and then fly home.

cow dung drying along a wall
Irene with Hindu myth sculpture