- The rugra mushroom is found in the sal forests of Jharkhand during the rainy season. It is a source of nutrition and income for the tribal people in the region.
- It is harvested from the wild but decreasing rainfall and shrinking forests have impacted its production and thus, its collection.
- Rugra cannot be grown in a controlled environment like other mushrooms, though there are efforts investigate this possibility.
It was the first Monday of August. Anjali Lakra, 38, a resident of Tetri village, which borders the sal forests in the Ranchi district of Jharkhand, emerged from the forest. She had a basket on her head with 10-20 wild mushrooms, locally known as rugra. Lakra looked sad and tired. Despite searching through the forest for about four hours, the rugra mushrooms she found are just about enough for two meals for her family of 10.
“Earlier, we would get so many rugra mushrooms that we not only had enough to eat, we could also sell some,” said Lakra. “In 2009, there was so much rugra that we would collect three to four kgs in an hour. Now, even if we get one kg we consider it a success.”
Rugra, a mushroom that grows underground, is relished by locals for its taste and nutritional value.
Albina Ekka, 50, a resident of the neighbouring Kharsidag village, used to go to the forest to collect rugra, but now she has given up. “These days, we have to buy rugra to eat it,” she told Mongabay-India. She further explains, “Earlier, people used to believe that burning of forest leads to the production of rugra, hence now people are burning forests. Apart from this, the forest area is diminishing as trees are being cut.”
Sudarshan Maurya, principal scientist at the Indian Institute of Vegetable Research (IIVG) in Varanasi, who has been researching rugra mushrooms growing in Ranchi, told Mongabay-India, “Apart from the changing weather, incidents of forest fire, especially during the autumn season, when sal leaves are burnt for collecting sal seeds, are among the major reasons for the low production of rugra.”
However, if one visits the markets in and around Ranchi, there is no visible shortage of rugra. Shravan Kumar Sahu, a wholesaler of the mushroom in Ranchi’s daily market, told Mongabay-India, “Rugra also comes to the Ranchi market from Chhattisgarh, Odisha and West Bengal. Although the production is decreasing here, it is getting compensated from other states. So there is no shortage in the market.”
Rugra is also called putu or putka or “vegetarian mutton”. Apart from being rich in nutrition, it is a major source of livelihood for the tribal community in Jharkhand. The tribal people living near the sal forests pluck rugra during the rainy season. Lakra says, “Generally, there are two types of rugras. The one that grows in less water and enough sunlight, is muddy. Its outer and inner parts are both delicious. The one that grows in more water is white. But rugra tastes nice when it is raw.”
Experts say that apart from sal trees and rain, rugra grows well at a particular temperature. But due to the weather changes, decreasing rainfall, increasing temperature and decreasing forest area, the quantity of rugra is decreasing.
Decreasing rainfall and increasing temperature
Radheshyam Sharma and S.K. Kotal from the India Meteorological Department have studied the changing weather patterns in Jharkhand in depth. According to their study, “Seasonal rainfall in Jharkhand has decreased at the rate of 13 mm per decade. The annual average maximum temperature of Ranchi, Jamshedpur and Daltonganj has increased by 0.58 degrees Celsius, 0.47 degrees Celsius and 0.29 degrees Celsius, respectively per decade.” For his study, Sharma has used data from 1901 to 2018.
Harvinder Kumar Singh, senior scientist at Raipur-based Indira Gandhi Agricultural University, told Mongabay-India, “Rugra grows in high humidity. The production decreases in the rain-deficit years. Besides, those who pluck rugra, don’t leave any residue, which affects the future growth. Hence, unless some restrictions are put in the forest areas, the vegetation cover of rugra will not increase.”
Connection between sal forests and rugra
Shalini Lal, the Head of the Department of Botany at Ranchi’s Dr. Shyama Prasad Mukherjee University (DSPMU) and Gitanjali Singh, a professor, who is a part of her team, along with researchers Vineet Vishal and Somnath Munda, have been doing studying rugra in Jharkhand since 2019 and have published six papers so far. Lal told Mongabay-India, “Sal trees provide moisture, density, shade, sandy laterite soil and organic matter formed from fallen leaves — conditions that are extremely favourable for the growth of rugra. “Unlike other species of wild mushrooms that grow above the soil, rugra grows in isolation or in clusters underneath the sal trees.”
However, the area of sal forests is also decreasing. A research paper published in 2020 mentions, “The sal forests in the Chota Nagpur plateau area in Ranchi have been feeling human pressure for centuries. A large part of the sal forest has been cleared for human settlements, building roads and farming. Despite legal protection, even the remaining forests are not safe. Illegal logging for wood and firewood, gathering of non-wood products, grazing, forest fires and hunting are some of the major threats.” The researchers wrote that sal forests are vital to the ecosystem because of their rich biodiversity (137 species of plants).
Commenting on the link between sal forests and rugra, Purvi Saikia, professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences at the Central University of Jharkhand, told Mongabay-India, “The sal leaves are bigger; hence they block the sunlight. But when they fall, they pass on the moisture to the ground. It is called the shading and mulching effect. Moisture in the soil is necessary for the formation of rugra and the sal trees manage to provide them with the required moisture.”
Talking about the future of sal forest, Saikia says, “The number of rainy days is decreasing. In such a situation, though smaller Sal plants are growing but, very few. Also, the survival rate of small plants is very low. Ideally, a forest should have trees of all types — old, new and even small plants. Since the survival rate of new plants in sal forests is low, after 50-60 years, the area of sal forests will start decreasing.”
She said, “Even if it does not rain for a long time, the old trees continue to get water because their roots are spread far and deep. But the roots of the new trees are only 10-15 cm deep. So, they face difficulty in getting water. Thus, the production of rugra may also get affected in the coming years as this mushroom is completely dependent on the Sal trees.”
This is how rugra grows
The majority of the population living in villages of Jharkhand depends on forest and non-forest wood products such as mushrooms for its livelihood.
Shalini Lal explains that rugra grows just beneath the surface of the soil. These wild mushrooms split into star-like shapes when fully ripe and are hence named “earthstar” and “false earthstar.”
According to her, so far, only three species of earthstar have been found in Jharkhand — Astraeus odoratus (sandalwood rugra or black rugra) obtained from the Rajmahal hills of Santhal Pargana. Astrays asiaticus (sada rugra) from West Singhbhum district and Geastrum aff. albonigum from Ranchi district.
Lal further explained, “All three wild mushrooms form a kind of fibrous network (ectomycorrhiza) with the roots of sal trees. Earlier, it was believed that all these species found in Jharkhand belonged to the Lycoperdon (puffball-shaped) species. However, based on DNA barcoding and molecular phylogenetic studies, they are divided into three distinct species. The shape of the gastrum is like a star, whereas Lycoperdon is like a puffball. Astraeus is in the shape of a false star; that is, after the outer shell bursts, a star-like shape is formed.
Maurya from IIVG said, “Due to lightning and rain, atmospheric nitrogen dissolves in water and creates a certain C:N (carbon to nitrogen) ratio with the rich carbon source of the sal forest. It plays an important role in the development of the fibre of the rugra and the mushroom starts forming very fast.”
Unlike other mushrooms, rugra has not yet been cultured. That means it can’t be grown in an artificial environment. On this, Lal says, “Rugra does not have seeds but has powdery basidiospores. When it falls on moisture in the ground, it forms fibre (mycelium). Then, when the mycelium is formed, it forms the rugra.”
Despite many types of technical studies related to rugra, there is insufficient information available about its formation and development. Lal says, “Fungologists have grown many types of mushrooms artificially in the recent decades, but this has not been possible with rugra.”
Prabhat Kennedy Soreng, the registrar of St. Xavier’s College, Ranchi, told Mongabay-India, “We tried to grow it in a controlled environment. We were successful. But we need to do more to meet the nutritional level.” A research paper on this by Ajay Kumar Srivastava and Prabhat Kennedy, the head of the forestry department of the college, has also been published.
Malnutrition and rugra
While malnutrition is decreasing in Jharkhand, it is still prevailing. New-born babies are the worst affected. In such a situation, experts say they believe that rugra can prove to be effective given the abundance of nutrients it contains.
According to research, along with protein, other essential nutrients are found in rugra. In their research paper shared with Mongabay India, the researchers wrote that rugra can be a dietary supplement.
This story was first published in Mongabay Hindi.
Banner image: A seller picking rugra in a market in Ranchi. Photo by Vishal Kumar Jain/Mongabay India.