- Guchhi (morel mushrooms) are one of the most expensive edible fungi. They are primarily found in Jammu, Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand and are usually picked by local people, between the months of March and May, to support their income.
- With rising temperatures leading to less moisture in the soil, the natural growing conditions of guchhi are reducing, leading to a decrease in the availability of the mushrooms.
- Methods to artificially grow these morel mushrooms are being experimented, as locals worry about the loss of their extra income, and the loss of a fungi that is closely tied to their tradition.
Reena Devi used to spend a good six to seven hours in one day, in the jungle around her house in Koti, Shimla, until last year. She would leave her house in search of gucchi (a local term given to morel mushrooms). On most days she would come back with around 100 grams of mushrooms. This guchhi hunt would take place between the months of March and May.
In India, guchhi is found in Jammu, Kashmir, and some higher altitude districts of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. It is one of the most expensive edible fungi in the Morchellaceae family, botanically termed as Morchella esculenta. Morchella mushrooms grow naturally post February in moist soil and aren’t yet cultivated artificially in India. Their growth is believed to be begin post snowfall, after thunderstorms.
Devi, 38, is a mother of two children. She is one of the many residents living in such areas, and spending hours in the jungle looking for a few hundred grams of morel mushrooms, to make a living or add on to their meagre income. “My family members, neighbours – they were all roaming in the jungle in the month of March, April and May, in the last two years, because the lockdown had severely affected their livelihood. Everyone had plenty of time and a negligible earning. So, it was a perfect time to try their luck with the guchhi,” Reena tells Mongabay-India. “We don’t depend on it to make ends meet but with the arrival of February, we are hopeful to add some extra income by collecting guchhi and selling it at the Shimla market.”
The decrease in availability of guchhi
For the mushroom hunters, however, the profession is getting tougher each day. It is not only because the precious, edible fungus only grows naturally, making it hard to earn, but also because the availability has reduced. “For past three or four years, we all have observed that the availability of guchhi has reduced. Earlier one would collect up to 200-300 grams a day. But now it is limited to a maximum of 100 grams. That too, if one spends an entire day of hunting,” Devi explains.
Locals also say that there has been a visible seasonal shift in its availability. “Previously the mushrooms were found from January onwards, until April. But now, for past five-six years, we get it only from March to June,” Reena tells Mongabay-India.
Is the reduced availability linked to climate change?
According to Anil Kumar, Senior Scientist at the Indian Council of Agriculture Research (ICAR) Directorate of Mushroom Research, Solan, guchhis are victims of climate change. He tells Mongabay-India, “With the hike in temperature, year after year, there remains no humidity in the soil and morel mushrooms need humidity to grow. These are not the usual mushrooms which grow in artificial climates. Morels have been a victim of climate change, along with some human activities which reduce their yield.”
The global surface temperature for January 2022 was 0.89°C (1.60°F) above the 20th century average of 12.0°C (53.6°F ) and ranked as the sixth-warmest January in 143 years.
“People from the villages of Himachal Pradesh and Kashmir, who go for guchhi hunt, pluck the entire range of morels they find in one specific habitat, leaving behind no fungi to complete the life cycle for the next season. That also emerges as a problem for the next season, resulting in less availability by default,” Kumar explains.
He further clarifies, “For mushrooms to keep growing, there needs to be at least one of them left behind else where would the next yield come from? Another thing to keep in mind is, while collecting these mushrooms, people pluck or uproot them which should be avoided. It should rather be cut from the stem.”
Scope for cultivating morel mushrooms artificially
Climate change, deforestation, and habitat destruction have resulted in the reduced growth of one of the most expensive edible fungi, according to the scientists. But recent research by Directorate of Mushroom Research (DMR) which says morel mushrooms could be cultivated artificially has given a ray of hope for the locals.
The Indian Council of Agriculture Research-DMR, has, for the first time, successfully cultivated the world’s costliest Morchella mushroom but it is still being worked on before farmers can cultivate it artificially.
Kumar told Mongabay-India, “Morel mushroom’s cultivation, is still completely controlled by the environment. We are working on its domestication to semi-control these mushrooms, artificially.”
Hemawati, who lives five kilometres away from Reena Devi’s house, has been collecting morel mushrooms for over a decade now. She works with the Himachal Pradesh government as a Class IV employee, but having a family of five, she needs an extra income. “I work as a cleaner at the local Community Health Centre, but on every Sunday and other holidays, I go to find guchhi,” she told Mongabay-India.
Hemawati, 41, further added, “My family members start going for the search from the end of February. They set to the forest, looking for the mushrooms at around 11 in the morning only to return with the setting sun. There are times we don’t find even a single one. It is very frustrating. Everything depends on your luck and concentration. Sometimes, guchhi would be right in front of your eye on any stone or among the grass and you won’t find it because of its muddy colour. We have to search hard so we can find some, and then dry and sell them.”
After the locals collect considerable number of mushrooms, they put it together in a string, making it look like a mini, mushroom garland. It is then hung to be dried in sunlight. “We dry it under the sun for a few days to remove the moisture and make it long-lasting,” she said.
Most of the collectors aim to sell the morels they find, but that becomes possible only if they collect a considerable weight. “It’s been a couple of years and no one from my family had sold mushrooms, because we don’t get enough of them now. We barely find guchhi to be consumed at home. We cook guchhi curry (a gravy dish) or guchhi pulao (a rice dish) with it. You would find it only in a select few restaurants in Shimla, that too, very rarely and at an expensive rate,” Hemawati adds.
When locals head to the Shimla main market with their dried guchhi, it is sold for further packaging and retail selling. However, the locals don’t make enough money from it. Hemawati tells Mongabay-India, “If we sell them for, say, 10,000 rupees per kilo in the main market to wholesale buyers, they are further sold for as high as 30,000 rupees per kilo after packaging.”
Banner image: Hemawati looks for guchhi with one of her neighbours. Photo by Jigyasa Mishra.