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 are not yet cultivated artificially in India. Their growth is believed to begin post snowfall, after thunderstorms.

Climate change, deforestation and habitat destruction have resulted in the reduced growth of these edible fungi, according to scientists. Photo credit: Jigyasa Mishra

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,” Reena told Mongabay-India. “Everyone had plenty of time and a negligible earning. So, it was a perfect time to try their luck with the guchhi.”

“We do not 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,” Reena said.

Decrease in availability

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,” Devi explains. “Earlier one would collect up to 200 grams-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.”

Locals also say that there has been a visible seasonal shift in its availability. “Previously the mushrooms were found from January onwards, until April,” Reena told Mongabay-India. “But now, for past five-six years, we get it only from March to June.”

Climate change

According to Anil Kumar, Senior Scientist at the Indian Council of Agriculture Research Directorate of Mushroom Research, Solan, guchhis are victims of climate change. “With the hike in temperature, year after year, there remains no humidity in the soil and morel mushrooms need humidity to grow,” He told Mongabay-India. “These are not the usual mushrooms that 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 was 0.89 degrees Celsius above the 20th century average of 12.0 degrees Celsius and ranked as the sixth-warmest January in 143 years.

Reena Devi (left) and Hemawati (right) searching for morel mushrooms. Photo credit: Jigyasa Mishra

“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,” Kumar explained. “That also emerges as a problem for the next season, resulting in less availability by default.”

He further clarified, “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.”

Artificial cultivation

Climate change, deforestation and habitat destruction have resulted in the reduced growth of one of the most expensive edible fungi, according to scientists. But recent research by the Directorate of Mushroom Research that says morel mushrooms could be cultivated artificially has given a ray of hope for the locals.

The Indian Council of Agriculture Research-Directorate of Mushroom Research, 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.

“Morel mushroom’s cultivation, is still completely controlled by the environment,” Kumar told Mongabay-India. “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.

“My family members start going for the search from the end of February,” Hemawati, 41, further added. “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 do not find even a single one,” Hemawati said. “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 will not 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 a 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 has been a couple of years and no one from my family had sold mushrooms, because we do not get enough of them now,” Hemawati added. “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.”

When locals head to the Shimla main market with their dried guchhi, it is sold for further packaging and retail selling. However, the locals do not make enough money from it. Hemawati told Mongabay-India, “If we sell them for, say, Rs 10,000 per kilo in the main market to wholesale buyers, they are further sold for as high as Rs 30,000 per kilo after packaging.”

This article first appeared on Mongabay.