The Southwestern region of the United States is a landscape inherently shaped by the presence and practices of Native American groups, and has in turn shaped the cultures and traditions of those who have lived here. Civilizations in the arid and highly variable environments of the Southwest have found it crucially important to make extensive and specialized use of the resources available. In particular, indigenous groups throughout the region have maintained an encyclopedic cultural knowledge of native plants, including seasonal and environmental growth patterns, preservation techniques, medicinal properties, and their potential for toxic or mind-altering effects. Furthermore, this knowledge has been extremely well documented in hundreds of ethnobotanical studies, historical accounts and scientific investigations. It seems strange, then, that relatively little is known about the relationship between Native American groups and the many species of fungi that grow in the region. In this article, we will investigate what is known of the historic and prehistoric uses of mushrooms by Southwestern Native American tribes, and discuss why we know so little on this subject by comparison to the well-studied utilization of raw materials from other types of native flora that have long been relied upon by the indigenous cultural groups of the region.
While the lush pine-fir forests found in high elevations of the otherwise arid Southwest are the most productive habitat for edible mushroom species, even here the region has a short and variable season for the development of fruiting edible fungi. Edible mushrooms in the Southwest generally grow from late July through late October in these mountainous forested areas. The fruiting of fungi during this period is strongly dependent on the monsoonal rains and warm nighttime temperatures. During years with an above-average monsoon season, mushrooms can fruit en masse, providing a major potential food source of high nutritional value. On the other hand, the recurring droughts and spotty monsoonal rain distribution often experienced in the Southwest can make the growth of these same mushroom species extremely scarce in some years. Moreover, the specific types of fungi that fruit in quantity may vary from one year to another, even in years with adequate rainfall. Possibly this inconsistency of growth patterns interfered with the establishment of the cultural knowledge that is required to use edible fungi safely.
One might reasonably assume that in years with an average or above-average monsoon season, many well-known edible mushrooms such as boletes (Boletus, Leccinum, and Suillus spp.), oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus populinus and Pleurotus pulmonarius), and lobster mushrooms (Hypomyces lactifluorum) could and would be used as a food source that would be available in late summer and early fall. Furthermore, some edible species of mushrooms such as shaggy manes, Coprinus comatus, the sand mushroom, Tricholoma populinus, and morels of the genus Morchella fruit during late fall or early spring, when other wild plant foods such as greens, berries, and roots are generally less available. These easily identified species, and many others, could be targeted for harvest or collected incidentally during hunting, non-fungal plant collection, or other activities. While not in abundance every year, edible mushrooms could have been a valuable protein substitute in years when wild game was scarce, and could also be easily dried and stored for routine use in the lean winter months. Mushrooms are now known to be high in protein content, containing all the essential amino acids, and are a rich source of nutrients such as niacin, vitamin D, vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene and a number of phytochemicals (Smith and Sullivan 2004, Chye et al. 2008, Sadler 2003).
Extant tribal groups in the Southwest are, for the most part, not known to have incorporated mushrooms into traditional practices. While there are library shelves filled with the details of native non-fungal plant utilization for food, ritual, clothing, shelter, medicinal use, and fabrication of tools and household articles, there are only a few sparse mentions of information on the Native American uses of mushrooms in the Southwest region. Among these infrequent reports, there is documentation that Navajo (Dineh) tribal members used the spores of puffballs (Lycoperdon and Calvatia spp.) as a lotion when reconstituted in liquid. It is also known that a variety of tribal groups used these species as a wound dressing, applying the powdery spores produced by the mature gleba as a poultice to stop bleeding or to treat burns or sores (Wyman and Harris 1941). There are also reports that puffballs and earthstars (Geastrum and related genera) were regularly used when severing the umbilical cord after childbirth to stop bleeding and prevent infection.
There is also evidence that certain fungi were used as a source of pigment or dye. Navajo tribal members have been documented as using Endothia singularis, a canker that grows on Gambel Oak (Quercus gambelii), as a resource for fabric dyeing (Jones 1948). Members of the Hopi tribe are known to have used the black spores from corn smut (Ustilago maydis) as body paint (Whiting 1966). In prehistoric times, the people of the Tusayan Pueblo used this pigment in the creation of pictographs (Fewkes 1892). (This species, named huitlacoche by the Aztecs, was highly prized for its culinary value by the native peoples of what is now Mexico, but there is little evidence that it was consumed by the indigenous population who lived in the area of the modern United States.)
Information about how and to what extent Native American groups in the Southwest used edible mushrooms for food is especially rare. Given the hundreds of species of mushrooms that grow throughout the Southwestern region, and that harvesting of certain species for consumption has been documented for many other cultures elsewhere in the West, it seems strange that so few were utilized. However, even along the West Coast of North America, where the climate and habitat produce much larger quantities of fungi over a significantly longer season than in the desert Southwest, only a few mushroom species have been documented as an important component of tribal diets (Richards 1997). Burk (1983) reported that the Zuni used large quantities of puffballs, either consumed fresh or dried for use during the winter months. However, there is no evidence that this practice was mirrored by other peoples of the Puebloan culture, or other unrelated Native American tribes in the vicinity, some of which believed eating puffballs could cause blindness (Burk 1983). Early ethnobotanical studies reported that Tewa puebloan groups indiscriminately ate larger mushrooms without any ill effects by first boiling and then frying them (Robbins et al. 1916). The most well-known example comes from Taos Pueblo in New Mexico, where the sand mushroom (Tricholoma populinum) is collected among the cottonwoods of high elevation streams in the fall (Arora 1991).
It is not clear why there is a general absence of known traditional uses of mushrooms in the Southwest. It is unlikely that this lack of use is a result of the general lack of mushroom species and seasonal availability compared to other regions of the country. While it is true that the Southwest includes a generally limited season for collecting fruiting edible mushrooms, it is not much different than the limited seasons for many of the dozens of other types of plants or plant parts that were collected and used as food or medicine by Native American groups. Furthermore, while the abundance and diversity of available edible fungi may be limited in the Southwest compared to other parts of the country, years with average or above average precipitation would still allow for the collection of adequate quantities of mushrooms that could be used for food.
This seemingly widespread lack of mushroom utilization by southwestern Native American tribal groups may mean that mushrooms were always avoided, even before European contact and settlement. While the overwhelming majority of mushroom species are thought to be either innocuous or beneficial, and only a small percentage is known to be poisonous, many cultures have been described as “mycophobic” when their use of mushrooms is shunned and the kingdom of fungi is regarded with fear (Arora 1986). This descriptor is often applied to the English-speaking world, where mushroom consumption is typically regarded as a dangerous eccentricity, but there were many Native American tribes with similar cultural taboos. Among the Inupiat people of Alaska, for example, Jones (1983) reports that “Traditionally, the local mushrooms were never eaten. …The local Inupiat word for mushrooms means ‘that which causes your hands to come off’. Long ago… [medicine men] fostered a strong taboo against eating mushrooms…” In other cultures, mushrooms are thought to be a privileged food source or ascribed high values for shamanistic or religious purposes (Mapes et al. 2002). The variability of mushroom appearances, taste, and edibility, their unpredictable growth and life cycle, and the decompositional nature of mushrooms may have been a source of fear that kept tribal groups from using mushrooms for food or other purposes. Non-fungal plant life grows fairly predictably, and can often be deliberately cultivated in conditions of adequate habitat, fertilization, and water, but a great number of mushroom species still cannot be successfully cultivated even with modern science and technology.[cryout-pullquote align=”right” textalign=”left” width=”33%”]Understanding the pathways of indigenous food knowledge is very important to us in our pursuit of social recovery and health.
Executive Chef, Sunrise Resort
Founder, Native American Culinary Association[/cryout-pullquote]Another possibility is that Native American groups did in fact harvest wild edible mushrooms prior to European settlement, but that this practice was generally not recorded in early documentary accounts as a result of a persistent and comprehensive mistrust of mushrooms and other fungi by early European visitors from mycophobic cultures. This aspect of the newly dominant white-European culture might subsequently have contributed to an oppressive atmosphere of disapproval and marginalization that caused tribes to give up the practice, just as they were forced to abandon many other traditional customs. Over time, the hard-won cultural knowledge of fungi would then have died out even among the elite class of shamans and medicine men. This theory of cultural bias has been suggested by others (Arora 1991, Richards 1997); but seems unlikely given the relative paucity of mushroom-related traditional knowledge in the Southwest compared to other areas in the West (Richards 1997, Anderson and Lake 2013). In addition, not all early studies can be found culpable of a general disinterest in mushrooms by those recording Native American traditional knowledge. For example, there are early ethnobotanical surveys that do record the traditional use of some mushroom species along with those of other plants and natural materials (Wyman and Harris 1941, Robbins et al. 1916).
There also may have been changes to the environment over the last several hundred years that have affected the species and abundance of edible fungi that now occur in many forested areas of the Southwest. Disturbance regimes, especially patterns of fire on the landscape, have changed considerably since the late 19th century. The substantial change in fire patterns for more than a century has affected tree densities, litter composition and abundance, as well as understory growth patterns and diversity. In addition to disturbances created by natural causes, which tend to occur randomly across a landscape, there are disturbances attributable to indigenous peoples, which tend to occur non-randomly across the landscape and through time (Raish et al 2005). Deliberate fire-setting by Native tribes is well documented, to promote the growth of grasses and forbs as fodder for wild game. An environment with frequent fire can result in less material such as downed logs, plant litter, and tree roots for saprophytic and mychorrizal mushrooms, which make up the majority of edible fungi species.
In summary, the growing interest in edible mushroom foraging that is occurring today was likely not shared by Native American groups of the Southwest, at least in historical times. While edible macrofungi have been recently found to be a good source of protein, vitamins, and micronutrients, there is little evidence to show that these attributes were taken advantage of by prehistoric and historic tribal groups in the Southwest, which seems counterintuitive given Native Americans’ broad and efficient use of other types of plants and animals available on the landscape for food, tools or other uses to allow for their continued survival. The lack of use and knowledge of edible macrofungi may be a result of cultural bias after European settlement, or mycophobia that pre-existed European contact. It may also reflect less availability of edible mushrooms in prehistoric Southwestern forests, due perhaps to more open, fire-influenced forests that may have supported more inedible fungal species adapted to growing in grass and forb vegetation types, and a smaller percentage of edible macrofungi. These factors would influence the benefits and costs Native American groups would get from foraging and collecting mushrooms, and thus could have influenced Native American groups to avoid fungi as a potential food source.
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