Our great forests of Tāne-mahuta hold a treasure trove of life that is mostly found only in Aotearoa.
Fungi are among Tāne’s descendants, along with plants and animals. Certain kinds of fungi were known and valued by tūpuna for their practical usefulness and were also used as an indicator of the coming season. Our ancestors considered that, when harore were common, a lean season would follow when other foods such as birds and vegetables would be scarce.
You can learn about different uses of fungi in Māori knowledge and use of fungi, and this article looks at what fungi are and where we can find them.
What and where are fungi?
Fungi are almost everywhere – in the air you breathe, in lots of the food you eat, in the soil you walk on, in the plants around you, in a stream’s foam bubbles and even on and inside you. Fungi are really common but often hard to see because they can be very small or are living hidden inside their home – which may be a log, the soil, a plant or an animal on which they are feeding. They live on and in their food!
Fungi are not plants. While plants make their own food in their leaves using sunlight and carbon dioxide (CO2), fungi can’t do this. Instead, fungi have to get their food from other sources, living or dead. Animals, like fungi, cannot make their own food but they can at least move to find the food they need. Fungi don’t move, so how do fungi find their food?
Fungi are very different from plants and animals, and there are so many kinds of fungi. There are more different kinds of fungi in the forests of Aotearoa than different kinds of plants, and there are even more different kinds of insects and other animals. All of these fungi, plants and animals live together in the forest and are linked together in many ways including in food webs. Like us, fungi can only live and grow if they have food, water and oxygen (O2) from the air – but fungi don’t chew food, drink water or breathe air. Instead, fungi grow as masses of narrow branched threads called hyphae.
These hyphae have thin outer walls, and their food, water and oxygen need to move across the wall into the living fungal cell – a process called absorption. Any waste products, like CO2, leave the cell by crossing the thin wall in the other direction.
Hyphae can change their form from when they are feeding to when they become part of a mushroom, for example. A mushroom is made up of masses of specially arranged hyphae. Fungal hyphae can often be seen as white threads, about as narrow as spider silk, among dead leaves on the forest floor or under bark of rotting trees, or they can be grown in a laboratory on a kind of jelly-like food in a plastic Petri dish.
Learn more about fungal life cycles and different parts of a fungus in Fungal life cycles – spores and more.
When will you see most fungi?
Life in Tāne-mahuta changes a lot with the seasons. In spring, we see new life among the birds, in summer the forest is alive with the shrill sound of cicadas and other insects, while in autumn it is the turn of the mushrooms and other fungi to shine. Many fungi produce their fruitbodies in autumn when it rains and temperatures cool after the drier and warm season of summer.
Take special care in autumn when walking through Tāne-mahuta, especially amongst his forests of mānuka, kānuka and tawai (beech). These trees have many special fungi that live with their roots and in the surrounding soil, helping those trees to absorb nutrients and water from the soil. If you pick a mushroom under these trees in autumn, you will be connected at that moment to the tree roots hidden beneath in the soil. Even with the mushroom picked, the feeding hyphae of the fungus will keep on helping the tree roots to feed. Other different trees of Tāne-mahuta also have fungi living with their roots and helping the tree to feed, but those fungi do not produce mushroom-like fruitbodies.
Some fungi especially need your help, just like the rare animals and plants of Aotearoa. They have lost their place to live in Tāne-mahuta or have been affected by other changes and are now rare. Protection of Tāne-mahuta is important for all his descendants – the fungi, animals and plants.
Learn more about Conserving New Zealand’s fungi.
Kōrero and whakataukī
The fungi of Tāne-mahuta also feature in kōrero, whakataukī and waiata.
For example, people who only made a small effort were called he harore rangitahi (a mushroom that only lasted a day).
The sky-blue mushroom Entoloma hochstetteri (te werewere-kōkako) was not used for a special purpose but was known to our ancestors for other reasons including kōrero and whakataukī.
This mushroom is always a prize for the eyes and the camera on any bushwalk where its bright blue colour stands out against the greens and browns of Tāne-mahuta. It develops on the forest floor from its feeding stage of hyphae that grow on or in leaves and other plant material in the soil. Autumn is the best time to see this mushroom, but you need luck on your side. While the mushroom is blue, the spores that form on the gills are pink – you can see this if you make a spore print. The spores are spread by the wind.
Have you seen a picture of this mushroom on our Aotearoa banknotes and stamps? Check out the Tūhoe kōrero in pictures on our $50 note, explaining how the kōkako bird gets its bright blue colour on its cheek. According to the kōrero, the kōkako rubs its cheek against werewere-kōkako to get the blue colour. Our $50 note is the only banknote in the world to include a picture of a mushroom.
In this 2022 RNZ programme discover more about the New Zealand Fungarium at Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research where over a 100,000 fungi specimens are housed.
Fungi of Aotearoa: A Curious Forager's Field Guide, 2023, is a practical and up-to-date guide written by forager and fungus enthusiast Liv Sisson.
Did you know? The largest living organism is probably a fungus! Check out the mushroom called Armillaria solidipes from the USA where one colony was found to be over 2,000 years old and growing through the soil in a forest to cover 9 square kilometres (over 1,000 rugby fields)! That makes it larger than a blue whale. No-one has looked yet at the size of a colony of harore in Aotearoa.
Kew Gardens has launched a new website for State of the World's Fungi, which provides assessments of our current knowledge of the diversity of fungi on Earth, the global threats that they face and the policies to safeguard them.
Keane, B. 2007. Kōrero taiao. Te Ara – The Encyclopedia of New Zealand. www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/korero-taiao; https://teara.govt.nz/en/korero-taiao-sayings-from-nature (accessed 16 July 2017).