Uncertainty of availability makes ‘guchhi’ hunting a difficult occupation in Himachal

  • Guchhi (morels) are one of the most expensive edible mushrooms. They are mainly found in Jammu, Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand and are usually picked by the 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 for guchhi are reduced, resulting in less availability of fungi.
  • Methods for artificially cultivating these morels are being experimented with, as locals worry about losing their extra income and losing a fungus closely tied to their tradition.

Reena Devi used to spend a good six to seven hours a day in the jungle around her home in Koti, Shimla until last year. She left her house in search of gucci (local term given to morels). Most of the time she came back with about 100 grams of mushrooms. This guchhi the hunt would take place between the months of March and May.

In Indiaguchhi is found in Jammu, Kashmir and some higher elevation districts of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. It is one of the most expensive edible mushrooms in the Morchellaceae family, botanically called as Morchella esculenta. Morchella mushrooms grow naturally after February in moist soil and are not yet cultivated artificially in India. It is believed that their growth begins after snowfall, after thunderstorms.

According to scientists, climate change, deforestation and habitat destruction have led to a reduction in the growth of this edible fungus. Photo by Jigyasa Mishra.

Devi, 38, is a mother of two children. She is one of the many inhabitants of these areas and spends hours in the jungle looking for a few hundred grams of morels, to earn a living or supplement her meager income. “My family members, neighbors – they were all wandering in the jungle in March, April and May for the past two years because the lockdown had severely affected their livelihoods. Everyone had plenty of time and negligible income. So it was the perfect time to try their luck with the guchhiReena tells Mongabay-India. “We don’t depend on it to make ends meet, but with February on the way, we hope to add additional revenue by collecting guchhi and sell it at Shimla market.

The decrease in the availability of guchhi

For mushroom pickers, however, the job is getting tougher every day. It’s not just because the precious edible mushroom only grows naturally, making it hard to earn, but also because availability has dwindled. “Over the past three or four years, we have all noticed that the availability of guchhi has reduced. Previously, up to 200-300 grams were collected per day. But now it is limited to a maximum of 100 grams. That too, if you spend a whole day hunting,” says Devi.

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

Is reduced availability linked to climate change?

According to Anil Kumar, Senior Scientist at Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) Mushroom Research Directorate, Solan, guchhis are victims of climate change. He tells Mongabay-India: “As temperatures rise year after year, there is no moisture left in the soil and morels need moisture to grow. These are not the usual mushrooms that grow in artificial climates. Morels have been victims of climate change, as well as certain human activities that reduce their yield.

The overall surface Temperature for January 2022 was 0.89°C (1.60°F) above the 20and century average of 12.0 °C (53.6 °F) and ranked sixth hottest January in 143 years.

Reena Devi (left) and Hemawati (right) searching for Guchhi.  Photo by Jigyasa Mishra.
Reena Devi (left) and Hemawati (right) searching for morels. Photo by Jigyasa Mishra.

“People from the villages of Himachal Pradesh and Kashmir, who fetch guchhi hunt, gather the full range of morels they find in a specific habitat, leaving no mushrooms to complete the next season’s life cycle. This also appears to be an issue for next season, resulting in less availability by default,” Kumar explains.

He further clarifies: “For the mushrooms to continue to grow, there must be at least one left, otherwise where would the next yield come from? Another thing to keep in mind is that when collecting these mushrooms, people pick or uproot them, which should be avoided. Rather, it should be cut from the stem.

Possibilities of artificial cultivation of morels

According to scientists, climate change, deforestation and habitat destruction have led to reduced growth of one of the most expensive edible mushrooms. But recent research from the Mushroom Research Directorate (DMR) that morels could be cultivated artificially has given locals a glimmer of hope.

The Indian Council of Agricultural Research (DMR) has successfully cultivated the world’s most expensive Morchella mushroom for the first time, but it is still being developed before farmers can grow it artificially.

Kumar told Mongabay-India, “The cultivation of morels is still completely controlled by the environment. We are working on its domestication to semi-control these fungi, artificially.

Hemawati, who lives three miles from Reena Devi’s home, has been picking morels for more than a decade now. She works with the government of Himachal Pradesh as a Class IV employee, but having a family of five, she needs extra income. “I work as a housekeeper at the local community health center, but every Sunday and other public holidays, I pick up guchhishe told Mongabay-India.

Hemawati, 41, further added, “My family members start going to search from the end of February. They went into the forest, looking for the mushrooms around 11 a.m., only to return with the setting sun. There are times when we don’t even find a single one. It is very frustrating. It all depends on your luck and concentration. Occasionally, guchhi would be right before your eyes on any stone or among the grass and you won’t find it because of its muddy color. We have to search hard to find it, then dry it and sell it.

After the locals collected a considerable number of mushrooms, they assembled them into a chain, making a mini mushroom garland. It is then hung up to be dried in the sun. “We dry it in the sun for a few days to remove the moisture and make it durable,” she said.

Most collectors aim to sell the morels they find, but this only becomes possible if they harvest a considerable weight.  This very expensive mushroom is also used for self-consumption.  Photo by Jigyasa Mishra.
Most collectors aim to sell the morels they find, but this only becomes possible if they harvest a considerable weight. This very expensive mushroom is also used for self-consumption. Photo by Jigyasa Mishra.

Most collectors aim to sell the morels they find, but this only becomes possible if they harvest a considerable weight. “It’s been a few years and no one in my family has sold any mushrooms, because we don’t get enough now. We barely find guchhi to consume at home. We cook guchhi curry (a sauce boat) or guchhi pulao (a dish of rice) with. You will only find it in a few selected restaurants in Shimla, that too, very rarely and at a high price,” adds Hemawati.

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

Read more: [Commentary] Responding to ecological imbalance: Tokugha’s journey in conservation

Banner image: Hemawati seeks guchhi with one of her neighbours. Photo by Jigyasa Mishra.

Michael A. Bynum