MORCHELLA ESCULANTA A WILD EDIBLE MUSHROOM OF HIMALAYAN REGION
Rakesh Verma ( Msc Forestry, MA Sociology)
J&K State Forest Services
MORCHELLA esculenta is an economically important wild mushroom. This mushroom is locally known as ‘Guchhi’. Morchella as a genus is fairly easy to recognize, but species recogonisition within genus is difficult task and need expert handling .Six species, namely Morchella esculenta, M. conica, M.deliciosa, M. angusticeps, M. arassipes and M. hybrid (M. semilibera) have been reported from India. The fruit bodies of all the species of the genus are edible and are mainly used as a flavoring agent in soups and gravies. M. esculenta is an expensive mushroom because of its rich nutritional value coupled with a unique flavour. The local people cook ascocarps (the fruiting body) mixed with rice and vegetables, and consider it as nutritious as meat or fish. It is used as herbal medicine also all over the Himalayan region. While the Bhotiya tribes (Central Himalaya) use a decoction of M. esculenta by boiling the fruiting bodies in water, local communities in the Kullu District of Himachal Pradesh (western Himalaya) boil it in milk for the medicinal purposes. Mushroom metabolites are also used as adaptogens and immunostimulants, and now are considered to be one of the most useful antitumour agents for clinical use. This fungus grows naturally on the forest floor rich in humus. If the food supply is sufficient, it collectively forms a compact mycelium on the surface soil. The ascocarp appears above the soil soon after the rains. However, the habitats are often distinguished by the dominance of tree species, viz. Rhododendron arboreum, R. lepidotum, Taxus baccata, Pinus wallichiana, Cedrus deodara, Betula utilis, Cupressus juniperus, and important medicinal and aromatic plants, viz. Podophyllum hexandrum, Dactylorrhyiza hatagirea, Picrorhiza kurrooa, Rheum emodi, Pleurospermum angelicoides, Angelica glauca, Arnebia benthamii, Saussurea costus, Megacarpea polyandra, Selinum wallichianum, Nardostachys jatamansi, Aconitum species and Polygonatum spp. It is noticed that it appears in a large scale during the month of March and its collection starts between April and June.
The genus Morchella is one of the oldest genera of Perizales which primarily occurs in North West Himalayan region, though reported by some researchers from sub-hilly as well as plains. Morchella , the true morels belonging to family Morchellaceae is commonly known as Guchhi in India. Morchella are commonly traced at high altitudes with cool microclimatic conditions. They are also reported growing in adondoned orchards, gardens, landscape area, melting snow around wood piles or tree trunks, and in sandy, loamy and organic rich matter soil.
The genus Morchella as reviewed in India by Warairchi in the year 1976. According to him, six species namely M. esculanta, M. conica, M. deliciosa, M. angusticeps, M. crassipes and M. semilibera have been reported from India which are being reported from North western Himalayan region especially Jammu and Kashmir, Uttranchal and Himachal Predesh. Occasionally reported from North East also, during my study of Garhwal Himalaya it was obeserved at Niti Valley, Tapoban, Joshimath, Pouri Gahrwal , Naagdev & Jhandidhar Forests(Sangeeta). In J&K Poonch, Mahore, Doda, Bhaderwah, Kishtwar, Udhampur and other high altitude forests.
Guchii is sold in market in dry form at very high rates, fresh dried Guchii is suitable for cooking as vegetable. Freshly dried Guchii is first blanched in water for few minutes then cut into small pieces and cooked like other mushrooms are cooked. They are rich in nutrients with high fiber content. It can be stored for few months in dry form at normal room temperature especially when packed in air dry packs ( Nandani).
Almost everywhere it is illegally extracted from the forest, air dried and sold in the market at very high rates, it may be Rs.5000.00 per kg. It is an attraction in the cuisine of most of Star Hotels. Because of its high value it is commonly illegally traded in India as no cultivation practice has yet been developed. People residing in the fringes of Forest of high altitudes generally collect it while they are with their cattle in then Forest and sometime when they are extracting other medicinal plants. It was estimated that on an average a family gathers about 2-3 kg of fresh morals ( M. esculanta). Which more often is consumed by the family itself in absence of the market. It is very common vegetable of Nomads during rainy season, they also get it dried for rest of the period of the year. It has been observed that local people who collects it form Forest floor do sells it to the middlemen who arrive them to purchase high valued medicinal plants, people sell it to them which may ranges from Rs. 2000-2500/kg ( dry wt.) when elsewhere, the price hovers well above Rs. 4500/kg ( dry wt.).In this trade system which is very common in hilly region, middlemen sells it for Rs. 7000-7500/kg. Middlemen earn 35-40% of the total profit. Since the collection of the same is too cumbersome and tedious, the villagers prefers collecting medicinal plants and the collection of Morels is of secondary importance. Hence collection of morels is solely carried out by the deprived brethrens of the village especially graziers. It is believed that India, Pakistan, Nepal, Afghanistan and possibly Iran collect around 2000 tonnes fresh weight of Morels in a year. The benefits to rural livelihoods are significant and widespread and large numbers of rural folks thus earn significant amounts of money. India annually exports around 50-60 tonnes of dry morels.
Although it is high in value, many efforts are made by the researchers for its cultivation, but no one has ever succeeded. One of my friend Dr. K. C. Sharma from Udhampur (J&K) claims that he has know how for the development of technology for the cultivation of Morchella esculanta. Various workers have made significant contribution in the field of mushroom cultivation, which has provided employment to thousands of people. No efforts have been made towards cultivation of M. esculanata, having a huge economic potential. This species has several-fold higher economic value compared to many importance higher Himalayan herbal plants, e.g., Aconitum heterophyllum ( Rs. 500/kg), A. balfourii ( Rs. 80/kg), N. jatamansi ( Rs. 60/kg), P. kurrooa ( Rs 80/kg), P. hexandrum (Rs. 60/kg), D. hatagirea ( Rs. 700-1000/kg), Swertia chirata ( Rs. 350/kg) and A. benthamii (Rs. 80-120/kg). Scientific interventions are needed for cultivation and availability of viable propagules material. However, a concerted effort from mycologists is needed to find suitable microcultures, which could be taken to the field, and by agronomists and ecologists to understand the mechanism of resource management. Therefore, sincere efforts are required to understand detailed systematic, ecological, physiological and genetical studies on M. esculanta. The life of M. esculanta may be studied in detail, particularly the mechanism of spore formation, spore dispersal and spore germination. Besides, studies on soil physico-chemical properties must be carried out just below the fruit-bodies so as to provide the status and quality of soil needed for spore germination. Optimal conditions for the regulation of their production should be determined. Proper identification and cataloguing of plants, which remain in close association with Morchella fruit-bodies, are needed. If M. esculanta is successfully cultivated, it will not only improve the socio-economic conditions of the locals of the higher Himalayan region, but will also help conservation of Himalayan biodiversity and ecosystem services (Pankaj Prasad et.al).
No article is ever complete without the active participation of think tanks. I also have great contribution of some persons in completion of this article to whom I want to acknowledge. My sincere thanks are due to Dr. V.S. Senthil Kumar (IFS) Divisional Forest Officer Jammu for guidance and technical support in my life whenever needed, he has very actively guided me in compilation of this article. I also thank Mrs. Sangeeta Kanthola for correcting the local names of the locations of its occurrence. My thanks are also due to Mrs. Nandani Barthwal for providing me information regarding its culinary uses.