Newsletter: On forest, fire and fungi 🔥
Why do one of the world’s most prized fungi, morels, love fire? Your burning morel mushroom questions, answered.
I just got back from western Secwepemc territory, an area hit by some of B.C.’s worst wildfires of 2017. I was sent to report on Indigenous consultation for the Trans Mountain pipeline. But as we drove alongside land covered with black, fallen trees, I thought of people like Angie Thorne and her father, Leslie Edwards, of Ashcroft First Nation, who are still living in motels after losing their home last summer.
Given the ongoing struggle to recover, nearby towns like Clinton, B.C., and it’s 600 residents, seemed more bustling than what I would expect. That’s when I saw the sign for morel mushroom permits, a funky looking little mushroom known for its treasured taste.
What does wildfire have to do with these fungi? Let me explain:
- Morel mushrooms fruit around the world, from North America, to Europe to the Himalayas. They’re highly sought-after because their fruit grow and vanish quickly. Certain species only appear briefly on burned soils during the spring after a wildfire. Indigenous peoples caught on to this thousands of years ago and research shows they may have prescribed burns to encourage their abundance.
- Why do they love scorched soil? There are a lot of reasons why forests and the species that depend on them love fire. But when it comes to morels, scientists aren’t sure. They speculate it might be from the flush of nutrients from the burn, the lack of competition from other organisms in the soil, and the freedom to grow since the forest floor has been cleared of branches and debris. This unsolved mystery is hardly surprising. It’s estimated that only 10 to 15 per cent of all North American fungi have even been described.
- Morels love wildfire, and burned ecosystems love morels. Morels can help spur growth of plant species by spreading their seeds. But this isn’t all good news. Morels really love cheatgrass, an invasive species that’s wreaking havoc across Canada. It’s also highly flammable. In areas where cheatgrass is invasive, like B.C.’s Okanagan where the wildfires hit hard, the risk of wildfire is about 500 times higher.
- Morels can be a boon to local economies recovering from wildfire. But not everyone is profiting. Morel harvesting is notorious for its black market, and many pick without any kind of permit. In the area around Elephant Hill, where I saw the sign for morels, the Indigenous nations who own the land only recently asserted their right to license pickers and buyers. Leaders like Chief Ron Ignace say they’re not doing it to make a profit, they’re simply permitting to cover basic costs to the land from the flood of people trampling on sensitive areas.
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