Pine mania:

🕔Jul 16, 2009
When mushroom buyers’ shacks spring up around Hazelton and communities to the west, when vans seem abandoned on the roadside and when boats are banked in odd places along the Skeena, it must be pine mushroom season.

Pine mushrooms, Tricholoma magnivelare, are large gilled mushrooms that sprout daily with the cool nights and warm days of late summer. They are white to light brown in colour with a pale white flesh and a strong, earthy odour.

These conical mushrooms grow on the dappled light of the forest floor, usually in well-drained soils of a young pine forest. They form a symbiotic relationship with the roots of living trees: the mushrooms receive carbohydrates and sugars from the roots, and the tree uses the underground network of the mushroom as root extensions, providing the tree with greater access to water and soil nutrients.

More than 5,000 people, both locals and transients, head to the hills to find this lucrative mushroom. A popular food commodity in Japanese markets, it is similar in appearance, taste and texture to the desired but declining matsutake mushroom of Japan.

In our region the pickers sell their fresh mushrooms to one of the many buyers for a price that depends on the mushroom’s age and condition. Long-time pickers report a wide price range over the last decade, from a low of $1 per pound to a high of $110 per pound. The weather, competing markets and—some claim—a devious pine mushroom cartel, determine the fluctuating price.

The people at the buyers’ shacks export the freshly harvested pine mushrooms as soon as possible on flights from the Terrace airport heading to Vancouver then to Japan.

Using data from Terrace airlines and regional buyers, a 1995 study concluded that an estimated 330,000 pounds of pine mushrooms were taken from the Nass Valley alone in 1994, representing a harvest revenue of approximately $3,755,400. The number of harvested pounds and the resulting dollar figure are admittedly high and do not represent a typical harvest year. Weather and market demand combined to make 1994, the survey year, a very good year with a very high price per pound.

Undisclosed locations
The Skeena and Nass watersheds contain numerous patches of prime pine mushroom habitat. Exactly where some of these are, however, I will not divulge. There are an estimated 2,500 professional resident pickers, some of whom rely on this tax-free, cash-based mushroom economy for a large part of their income, and who would not appreciate anyone making such a revelation.
There are many hundreds of mushroom gatherers who pick responsibly and leave no trace of their camping and picking spots.

Yet pine mushroom pickers have a reputation for being rather territorial. And competition, false trails and reports of thievery increase right along with the posted price per pound.

Last autumn I found two young pine mushroom seekers wandering through the undergrowth as the sun was rising. They had been intentionally led astray the night before by pickers with a fierce competitive spirit, and had spent a long cool night in the woods trying to find their way out. I sent them on their way (the correct way), hoping the morning sun would blind them to my own special mushroom patch.

Bad directions aside, it is very easy to get lost in the woods, especially when you are moving along with your eyes on the ground hunting for an elusive treasure.

RCMP and Search and Rescue deal with a marked increase in lost or delayed people in August and September, the prime pine mushroom-picking months. When heading into the bush, pickers should bring more than enough food and water and be prepared for an emergency. Ensure that someone at home knows your route and estimated return time. Stay aware of your surroundings by looking up from the forest floor often to keep your bearings. You don’t want to be the person that searchers are looking for.

I know that the cool smell of an approaching autumn can be conducive to a silent walk in the woods but wearing a bear bell during your wandering is a good idea. I have two very chatty children and haven’t worried about surprising a sleeping mama bear during our mushroom seeking. If you don’t have boisterous companions simply stay aware of your surroundings and make enough noise to let the resident animals know of your approach.

Pick respectfully
Although there is currently no legislation controlling or limiting the harvest of pine mushrooms, pickers should be aware of the laws that do affect them. Harvesting from provincial parks is illegal, so educate yourself as to where park boundaries are in your area. Poking about on privately owned land is also a no-no unless you can manage to find the landowners and get permission to harvest mushrooms from their property. If you leave litter at your campsite you could be subject to fines under the Waste Management Act.

The pine mushroom is an important forest product and should be harvested appropriately. The practices of some competitive mushroom pickers, such as raking the mossy forest floor and removing the large ‘flag’ mushroom which indicate a good patch are very destructive to the site and hurt future harvests.

Excessive trampling of the forest floor by walking or by an ATV should be avoided as the underground mycelium will be compacted and possibly destroyed. I keep an eye on my kids, making sure they don’t obliterate the forest fungi while wandering through the undergrowth.

For such a sought-after mushroom there is a notable dearth of knowledge on the subject; there is a real need for a long-term comprehensive study on the effects of different degrees and methods of pine mushroom harvesting. Considering that the value of these mushrooms can exceed the potential value of the timber on the same site, it’s clear that more research should be done on wild mushrooms.

If you are heading to the backwoods during pine mushroom season, educate yourself about proper harvesting techniques and stay safe. And don’t assume that the van on the roadside and the boat on the riverbank indicate an abundance of mushrooms nearby. Pickers are very territorial and some cunningly leave their transportation in a misleading place, set a false trail, then walk in stealth and seclusion for half a day.