Updated: Aug 12, 2021
Matsutake, Tricholoma murrillianum previously T. magnivelare, are a mushroom that I have purposely - and stupidly, I now know - skipped learning for a number of years. My previous understanding was that these only fruited in pure lodgepole pines, which is a forest type that I personally don't enjoy being in very much. It's a little ridiculous, I accept that, but I prefer to spend my sometimes limited woods-time in places that I truly enjoy. Anyways, with that incorrect understanding I just went about my typical summer and fall mushroom hunting not knowing that I was missing out on a pretty interesting and sometimes challenging species! But, as luck would have it, everything changed last weekend (Labor Day, 2019) and now I'm a little annoyed with myself for purposefully avoiding our matsutake for the last few years...
On Saturday I was sponsoring a foray for the Fort Collins Mycological Society, so on Friday I went on a scouting trip to get an idea of the current conditions in hopes that I wouldn't lead a completely unfruitful event the following day. The conditions were a bit rough! Lack of any heavy rain for a couple weeks had left the trails dusty and the soil crunchy, but I still found some cool mushrooms to show the group! On my way out of the area I decided to not walk the trail, but instead climb a hill that consisted of mixed conifer, and walk out through the woods back to my car. About a third of the way up the hill I crossed paths with a Japanese gentleman who had a cloth bag and some sort of homemade walking stick/garden tool hybrid. I knew exactly what he was up to: looking for matsutake! I made a mental note of that and continued on my way with a nod and a hello. A few minutes later I ran into another "matsutake hunter", this time a Japanese lady with the same accouterments. I couldn't resist the urge twice, knowing what they were up to, so I attempted to strike up a conversation. It went something like...
Me - "Hello! Are you looking for matsutake?"
Her - "Mushroom." With a nod as she lifted out two matsutake from her bag that looked about a third to half full.
Me - "Would you mind if I watched you? I don't know how to find those very well and would like to learn!"
Her - Nodding again as she returned the matsutake to her bag and went back to prodding around the base of a tree with her custom mushroom tool.
I took that as a yes, and stood back while she went about her routine. She didn't seem to mind my observance. After watching for a couple minutes I gave thanks and continued up the hill, only to run into a third member of the Japanese Matsutake Crew! Having already watched I only offered this one a hello, and glanced at his process as I made my way past. As it turns out there were five of them in total, working in a cohesive and efficient group along the entire hillside. They would weave through the woods seemingly checking every tree visually or with their tools, and occasionally calling out something in Japanese or just making noise to check in with each other. I spent the next couple hours within their midst completely by accident. I had a place I wanted to go and it turns out they were headed that direction as well. Sometimes I was ahead of them and sometimes between them, but every interaction we had allowed me to learn by observation. Here's what I gleaned:
Matsutake don't only grow in lodgepole pine forests - shocking! In fact, a majority of the trees they were having success under were subalpine fir.
I believe they were looking for any sort of disturbance in the soil that could suggest a mushroom growing beneath. This phenomenon is commonly called a 'mushrump'.
They had custom made poking/digging tools that were essentially a walking stick or cane size piece of wood, like a broom handle, with a garden tool affixed to the end. A couple had dandelion diggers and the others had narrow trowels.
Their process was to weave through the forest checking every likely tree for 'mushrumps', signs of matsutake, and occasionally prodding with their matsutake tools. I'm not sure if they were feeling for something specific or just merely hoping to find a completely hidden mushroom.
When they found one they would pop it out their their tool, dust it off a bit, drop it into their bag, and search the surrounding area for more. They often found a second or third one within a couple feet of the first.
In addition to checking under trees, including climbing among the lower branches of the largest firs, they would poke around decaying logs, and in the duff around rocks and stumps.
After spending time observing their methods and checking the areas that they were having success in, I began to recognize likely areas myself! Eventually even getting to a tiny, completely emerged matsutake before they did! It was the first matsutake I had found while specifically looking for them, and I may not have needed to expertly notice a small mushrump, but I was proud nonetheless. I continued observing when I had the opportunity, and searching them out on my own when I would separate from their group. By the time I reached my car I had a total of four matsutake, and a whole lot of new knowledge to digest! It also just so happened that I had parked right next to the Matsutake Crew, and we exchanged waves and "good lucks" as I left for the day.
I spent the next couple days practicing what I learned from my interactions with the kind folks from the Matsutake Crew. We found a handful more during the foray in the same general area, including one that I completely lucked out on which was buried under a couple inches of pine cone debris on the edge of a pine midden. Then, the following day I went to a completely new area to teach some friends the wonders of mushroom hunting and we left with another eight or ten fresh matsutake!
I'll be the first to admit that I'm still very new to searching for matsutake, and look forward to learning more about these interesting mushrooms. Once I do I may write more of an educational blog for them, but until then take what I've learned and see if you can find some matsutake of your own! And, if you run into a group of friendly Asian people in the woods try to strike up a conversation, you may just learn something!