Mushroom magic

Matsutake mushrooms are a highly prized delicacy, the rare product of an intricate network of ecological interactions and a subject of research for professor of anthropology Anna Tsing. Credit: Noboru Ishikawa, courtesy of Anna Tsing.

Matsutake, one of the most valued mushrooms in the world, make a perfect subject for thinking about how humans impact other life on Earth—for worse and for better—according to professor of anthropology Anna Tsing. The mushroom takes center stage in her 2015 book, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins.

Now a global phenomenon, matsutake first found fame in ancient Japan. The mushrooms grew in satoyama, village forests where people cut trees for firewood, harvested fruits and mountain vegetables, and raked away litter to lay on their fields.

These forest management practices created a perfect environment for matsutake. Matsutake grow mainly on the roots of red pines in Japan, and the human activity encouraged the weedy red pines to flourish. Felling trees also favored deciduous oaks, which grew back from their intact roots. The oaks in turn discouraged red pine’s competitors—all the better for matsutake. Satoyama are now less common in Japan, but, thankfully for its devotees, matsutake thrives elsewhere in the Northern Hemisphere.

Matsutake show us that many partners are required in the ecological dance that allows life to flourish, said Tsing. In fact, scientists have never been able to artificially cultivate matsutake. Rather, “you need a whole complex ecological community,” she said—humans included.

Alison F. Takemura