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3 April 2019 Yi Ethnomycology: Wild Mushroom Knowledge and Use in Yunnan, China
Madeline Brown
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Local ethnobiological knowledge offers critical insights into ecological processes, species diversity, and abundance, as well as changes in environmental conditions. Although ethnomycological knowledge remains understudied compared to local knowledge about plants and animals, wild fungi are important components of healthy, functioning ecosystems. Wild fungi are also integral to many social and economic systems. Yunnan Province, China, is home to both a wide diversity of wild edible mushrooms and extensive human-fungi relationships. Understanding local ecological and mycological knowledge is critical for conserving ecological systems and promoting sustainable livelihoods. This study investigates indigenous Yi ethnomycological knowledge in four communities in Nanhua County using both interviews and harvesting observations. The comparative merits and limitations of each method are assessed. Around 90 unique, named folk species were reported or observed in the study communities, with 54 species reported multiple times. Local mushroom names encode information about local ecology, species morphology, and abstract metaphorical ideas. In addition, harvesters variably referred to mushrooms in Yi, Mandarin, or with general descriptive categories, suggesting a link between species use, value, and naming conventions. This study found that directly observing mushroom harvests captured more detailed knowledge compared to recall-based interviews, including both a greater number of species and a more nuanced, multi-leveled taxonomic system. However, interviews revealed the cultural salience, economic values, and culinary preferences for many local mushroom species. These results highlight the importance of mixed-methods approaches to ethnoecological knowledge, as both recall and observational data may lead to different conclusions about local species abundance and diversity.


Local ecological knowledge is important for understanding complex human environmental dynamics. Such local understandings of ecological systems may encompass the identification, classification, and uses of diverse ecosystem components, including plants, animals, weather patterns, soil, and fungi. This situated knowledge is place-based and responsive to local environmental contexts (Hopping et al. 2016; Nazarea 1999; Salick and Ross 2009; Turner and Clifton 2009). Consequently, information about environmental change, sustainable management practices, and biodiversity is often encoded in local ecological knowledge systems (Anderson 2005; Bridges and McClatchey 2009; Ford 2011; Minnis 2000). Local ecological knowledge is also embedded in taxonomy, wherein species names contain information about their physiology, ecology, or function. Such knowledge may also be encoded in practice, when harvesting follows certain spatial and temporal patterns based on local understandings of ecological processes.

Fungi are critical components of ecological systems, highly diverse, and important in subsistence and market-based livelihoods worldwide (Boa 2004; Cunningham and Yang 2011). Wild mushrooms are also important components of ecological knowledge systems and cultural traditions worldwide, although they have not been as well studied as ethnobiological knowledge of plants and animals has been (Arora and Shepard 2008; Lampman 2004; Yamin-Pasternak 2011). Ethnomycological knowledge often includes information about broader ecological systems health or local climatic changes. Many fungi have symbiotic relationships with specific tree species, linking their life cycles with the forest around them (Arora 2008; Yang et al. 2006), while other fungi produce fruiting bodies following major ecological disturbances, such as fire (Pilz and Molina 2002). Fujimoto (2009) highlights the use of wild plants as indicators of seasonal change and environmental conditions. Fungi are also responsive to rainfall patterns, meaning that changes in their productivity and phenology may indicate changing climatic conditions (Yang et al. 2012). Consequently, knowledge about when and where particular mushroom species are found may also relate to the broader forest composition and ecological dynamics. Such knowledge can inform environmental management and regulation, scientific inquiry, and forest restoration practices.

Ethnobiological knowledge is often documented through interviews, pile sorts, and focal follows. Each of these methods may be more likely to produce certain types of information or biases. For example, species observations during focal follows may be dependent on seasonality or local species abundance. Meanwhile, pile sorts can be biased towards morphological traits or functional traits depending on whether photos, words, or physical objects are used (Bernard 2011; Borgatti 1998). By employing multiple data collection methods, researchers can work to minimize or at least identify potential data biases. In the case of wild mushrooms, the relative results of various data collection methods remain poorly understood. An aim of the present study is to offer comparative insights into several ethnobiological data collection methodologies.

This study documents local knowledge about wild fungi in four indigenous Yi communities in Yunnan. As one of China's 56 officially recognized ethnic groups, Yi people have a unique cultural history and language, yet remain a highly diverse group with numerous dialects and distinct Tibeto-Burman languages (Bradley 2001; Harrell 2001; Mullaney 2011). The ethnomycological and linguistic knowledge documented here derives specifically from Yi people living in Nanhua County, Chuxiong Prefecture. Harvesters were interviewed about their species knowledge and harvesting practices for wild fungi. In addition, direct observations of daily harvesting returns were also recorded. Each of these methods is found to capture a different dimension of local ethnomycological knowledge and wild fungi ecology. The frequency and abundance of commonly collected mushroom species are analyzed and compared across study sites. In addition, the local names and knowledge for around 50 species of wild mushrooms are documented, highlighting how mushroom identification tools and function are encoded in species names. Finally, I illustrate the multifaceted role wild mushrooms play in local daily life in Nanhua.

Study Context

Yunnan Province, China, is widely recognized for its rich biological and cultural diversity (Mullaney 2011; Myers et al. 2000; Stepp 2005; Yang et al. 2004). Up to 700 species of edible mushrooms are estimated to grow in Yunnan (Mortimer et al. 2012, 2014), with over 140 unique species previously documented for sale in regional markets (Wang et al. 2004). Moreover, wild fungi are widely recognized as an important market sector in the province, benefiting a range of actors from local harvesters to regional middleman traders to export companies (Arora 2008; He 2010). Although numerous regional studies highlight wild mushroom commodity chains, divergent traditions of mycological science, and sustainable management practices (Menzies and Li 2010; Mortimer et al. 2012; Tsing et al. 2008; Yang et al. 2008, 2009; Yeh 2000), relatively few investigate the ethnomycological knowledge of mushroom harvesters (but see: Brown et al. 2018; He et al. 2011; Tsing 2015). At the same time, over the last few decades, Yunnan has been a key site for national and international conservation initiatives, within which the role of indigenous people and knowledge has varied (Fox et al. 2009; Hathaway 2013; Sturgeon 2005). For example, the World Wildlife Fund and The Nature Conservancy, two major international conservation groups, conducted sustainable development projects in Yunnan during the early 2000s to develop wild mushroom harvesting as a local livelihood strategy (WWF 2018; Yang et al. 2009). These and other applied conservation initiatives suggest that increased engagement with indigenous knowledge about all aspects of ecological systems, including fungi, may improve local suitability of future conservation efforts in the region (Brown et al. 2018; Xu et al. 2005).

Data were gathered in four natural villages in Nanhua County, Chuxiong Yi Autonomous Prefecture, Yunnan Province (Figure 1). Nanhua County is well known in Yunnan for their abundant wild forest mushrooms. In Nanhua city, newly installed street lamps are shaped like mushrooms, mushroom murals cover building facades, and mushroom-shaped houses can be seen dotting the surrounding hills. During each rainy season since at least 2004, (Xinhua 2018) Nanhua has hosted a wild mushroom festival with live music, dancing, food, and mushroom-related activities. Harvesters from across the county bring exceptionally large specimens of lingzhi (Ganoderma spp.) and songrong (Tricholoma spp., often Tricholoma matsutake) to the festival to compete for prizes (Figure 2).

Each of the communities included in this study are primarily indigenous Yi cultural groups and adjacent or near one another within the same administrative village. Local mushroom-producing forests are mixed pine and deciduous trees. Of the four communities, most data are from Baihua village (a pseudonym to protect participant anonymity). Baihua is a primarily indigenous Yi ethnic community with 73 resident households, each of which actively participates in a locally developed community-based wild mushroom management system. Wild mushrooms—particularly Tricholoma matsutake (in Mandarin: songrong, and in Yi: mene)—are an important part of local livelihoods and identity. For example, during ethnographic fieldwork in Baihua in 2014, a CCTV7 (the national agricultural channel) crew filmed part of a television episode in the community, featuring their local matsutake as an ecological and healthy specialty product. This experience further strengthened community members' sense of pride about local wild mushrooms. In addition to ethnoecological knowledge from Baihua, this paper also introduces local mushroom knowledge from three neighboring communities in the region. Like Baihua, these neighboring communities' forests are predominantly mixed pine and deciduous trees and residents' livelihoods are primarily agrarian.

Figure 1.

Map of four study sites (Map: Madeline Brown).


Figure 2.

Nanhua County Mushroom Festival. A large prize-winning lingzhi mushroom hangs in the right foreground at a Nanhua market during the annual festival. The plaque reads “Lingzhi Mushroom King.” (Photograph: Madeline Brown).



This study investigates local ethnomycological knowledge through three primary methods: 1) household interviews, 2) participant observation, and 3) harvesting bout documentation. Fieldwork in Yunnan was conducted annually from 2012–2016, for a total of 18 months. This paper primarily draws on household interviews in Baihua conducted between July and November 2014. All interviews in Baihua were either conducted directly by the author or with assistance from a local Yi language-speaking assistant. These interviews are coupled with extensive ethnographic fieldwork in the focal community. Ethnographic research involved participatory forest mapping, focal follows on mushroom harvesting trips, and participation in community events and daily household life.

While conducting ethnographic fieldwork in Baihua, I also documented foraging returns for 38 mushroom harvesting bouts. These bouts were either directly observed and weighed or based on harvester recall of the most recent one or two days' harvesting returns. The 38 bouts sampled cover 26 days between July 7 and October 4, 2014. Bout data derive from half the local harvesting groups, with 22 observations from a single group. Although bouts were not systematically sampled, they offer a general overview of the diversity and abundance of edible wild fungi collected in local forests.

Household interviews in the three Nanhua communities were conducted as part of a broader project investigating the impact of novel cash crop introduction on forest use across 17 rural communities in Yunnan (McLellan and Brown 2017). Interviews were conducted between August and October 2015. Here, I highlight the wild mushroom harvesting data from three communities in Nanhua County. Twenty interviews were conducted in each community. These 60 interviews are collectively referred to as “Nanhua” interviews in this paper. The additional interviews in neighboring communities provide a broader context for the ethnomycological data from Baihua.

Sampling strategies differed between Baihua and the Nanhua communities. In Baihua, a complete community census was conducted. During these initial household interviews, 71 out of 73 resident households were interviewed. In the Nanhua communities, random samples of 20 households were sought, based on a list of household heads. Some households were unavailable during the study period and, in some cases, interviewees were selected based on availability. Because this paper is focused on the suite of mushroom names and general, community-wide ethnoecological knowledge and practice, this sampling strategy may only minimally impact our results. Data analysis was conducted in R and maps were made with ArcGIS.

Reported mushroom names were standardized with regular expressions according to commonly recognized species categories. All Yi mushroom names elicited in Baihua are written out phonetically using Mandarin pinyin Romanization where possible. Mushroom names documented in the Nanhua communities were primarily transcribed by Mandarin-speaking field assistants. In addition, assessments of species scientific names were previously completed with assistance from regional mycologists Samantha Karunarathna and Li Huili, as part of the creation of a digital archive (Brown 2016). The digital archive also includes audio recordings of Yi wild mushroom names and species photographs.


Interviewees were asked to name all of the mushroom species they commonly collect. In Baihua, 82% of interviewees (n = 71) reported commonly collecting at least one mushroom species. By contrast, among the Nanhua interviewees, only 65% (n = 60) reported collecting one or more mushroom species. Respondents who reported collecting mushrooms in Baihua were 25% female and 75% male (n = 60), and 16.2% female and 83.8% male in the Nanhua communities (n = 37). The gender imbalance among interviewees reflects the fact that interviews were conducted with self-identified “household-heads” (huzhu), who are often male, as well as the fact that more men than women felt comfortable responding to questions in Mandarin, rather than reflecting a gendered division of labor. The sample population in Baihua has a mean age of 37.7 years (SD = 11.7, N = 60, Range = 17–70), while in the Nanhua sites, mean respondent age is 41.2 years (SD = 12.0, N = 39, Range = 20–64). Given the age range of respondents, mushroom names documented here span multiple generations and offer a comprehensive overview of mushroom knowledge within the community.

Species Diversity

Interviewees in Baihua reported collecting a total of 48 named mushroom folk species. By contrast, the Nanhua interviews elicited a total of 28 unique mushroom folk species, while harvesting bout observations yielded 51 unique named mushroom folk species. Collectively, 90 unique folk species (54 of which were reported more than once) were documented in Nanhua through combining the three datasets (Table 1). The Yi, Mandarin, and potential Latin names for many of these local fungi species are included in the  Appendix (Supplement.pdf). Figure 3 also includes names and photos for several common species in Yi, Mandarin, and Latin. In addition to named mushroom folk species, many respondents in the Nanhua sites and several in Baihua also mentioned zajun as a commonly collected mushroom type. Zajun means “miscellaneous” mushrooms and usually collectively refers to all types of mushrooms with low cognitive salience or value. The exact species included in the zajun category may vary across individuals and communities.

Not all collected mushrooms are necessarily given specific names. Of 543 observations of harvested mushrooms (i.e., unique morphospecies per bout, across all bouts), 89 observations involved unnamed mushrooms. These unnamed mushroom observations include numerous mushroom species—such as Amanita spp., Phylloporus sp., and others—that are commonly collected and sold, but are not named in local taxonomic systems. In addition, harvesting bout observations showed that local folk taxonomic distinctions did not always align with scientific binomial nomenclature. Therefore, in calculating the number of named species, all xiaohuangjun (little yellow mushroom) are considered a single type of mushroom, as they are all named the same thing in local folk taxonomy. Given their morphological variation, it is possible that these mushrooms might be divided into 3–4 unique species in scientific nomenclature.

Species Knowledge and Use

When asked to name all the mushroom species they commonly collect, harvesters in Baihua named an average of 2.65 more species than harvesters in Nanhua (Table 2). Gender does not seem to play a role in mushroom knowledge. No significant differences in the number of mushroom species named were found between women and men (mean = 6.27 [SD = 2.37] and 5.64 [SD = 2.87] species for women and men, respectively, t = 0.832, DF = 28.779, p = 0.412).

Mushrooms in Nanhua are primarily harvested for commercial purposes. Some species, such as T. matsutake and Boletus edulis, are generally sold fresh on the day they are picked, while the majority of less economically valuable species are usually dried before being sold. Some households build specialized sheds for dehydrating mushrooms, while others dry the mushrooms on their rooftops and outdoor cement entryways (Figure 4). Some species, such as megeqi (Lyophyllum sp.) and chume (Lactarius sp.), are preferentially eaten rather than sold. For the more economically valuable species, only damaged, bug-eaten, or older fruiting bodies are eaten by harvesters.

Table 1.

Total number of mushroom folk species in several Yi communities, gathered through interviews and bout observations.


Figure 3.

Common mushrooms in Baihua. (Y) = Yi name, (M) = Mandarin name, (L) = Latin name. (Photographs: Madeline Brown).


Table 2.

Average mushroom species named per respondent.


Common Mushroom Species

The most common mushrooms collected in the study sites are assessed through four metrics: 1) nomination frequency in Baihua interviews, 2) nomination frequency in Nanhua interviews, 3) harvest frequency in observed bouts, and 4) total kilograms harvested in observed bouts. Compiling the top five species from the four metrics yields a total of 10 distinct folk species (plus the general “mushroom” [zajun] category) (Table 3). Each metric presents slightly different assessments of most commonly harvested mushroom species in Nanhua. Matsutake is the top mushroom mentioned in both interview datasets and is also the top species gathered by weight in the bout data. However, matsutake was only observed in ∼66% of harvesting bouts. This discrepancy may be due to the fact that matsutake is often sold separately from other mushroom species and may not be reliably reported or observed in some bouts.

The local salience of each folk species as commonly collected species was assessed using Smith's S, calculated using the AnthroTools R package (Purzycki and Jamieson-Lane 2016; Smith and Borgatti 1997; Smith et al. 1995). The salience of the freelisted mushroom species largely corresponded to the general frequency of mention (Table 4 and Figure 5). In all four study communities, mene (T. matsutake) and mechizai (B. edulis) ranked as the top two most salient species. This reflects their high economic value compared to other local mushroom species, leading them to be both the most commonly collected mushrooms and the most salient mushrooms in this functional category.

Figure 4.

Achimepei (Lactarius lactifluus) drying on a front porch. (Photograph: Madeline Brown).


Table 3.

Top Five Mushroom Species. This table conveys the top ‘commonly collected’ local species through four metrics. For ‘bouts by frequency’, the top 5 species are those that occurred in the greatest number of bouts. In the Nanhua interviews, ‘zajun’ or ‘miscellaneous mushrooms’ appeared in the top five species, so an additional species was included for that ranking.


Harvesting Practices

Mushroom harvesting is a widespread activity in Nanhua County, particularly in the community of Baihua. Individuals often combine mushroom harvesting with additional agricultural and other local day labor (dagong) activities. Since these bouts are based on convenience sampling, they are not necessarily representative of the community as a whole (in terms of group composition or time spent harvesting) but are varied enough to be representative of the diversity of harvested mushrooms in local forests.

The collective mushroom management systems in Baihua are somewhat unique compared to other mushroom harvesting communities. This system allows households to cooperatively harvest mushrooms in multi-family groups. Here, mushroom harvesting plays a role in building social ties among community members. Observed bouts from nine different harvesting groups in Baihua involved an average of 2.63 individuals (SD = 2.15, N = 38), and ranged from one to ten foragers per bout. It should be noted, however, that many of these bouts were conducted by a single two-adult household, which may drive down the average. During ethnographic fieldwork, multi-household harvesting groups were commonly observed. Working together allows households to allocate labor across multiple livelihood activities and buffer against economic loss on days when some group members may not be available to harvest mushrooms.

Table 4.

Salience of Freelisted Commonly Collected Mushrooms. The top five species with the highest Smith's S salience scores are included for both the Baihua and Nanhua sites' freelists.


Figure 5.

This figure displays the relative salience of each freelisted mushroom species in both Baihua and the Nanhua sites. This plot includes all species named by more than one individual within each study site. The vertical line marks the 0.1 index (see: Smith et al. 1995), as a benchmark for salience. Names are translated to Yi where possible, or left with the original transcription. For clarity, only species named by more than one individual are included. Eight species and three species are above the 0.1 salience index in Baihua and the Nanhua sites respectively. In the Nanhua sites, the third most salient mushroom type was zajun, a catch-all category for general, less economically-valuable mushrooms. This suggests there may be less mushroom knowledge and livelihood specialization in the Nanhua communities compared to Baihua.


Table 5.:

Average characteristics of mushroom harvesting bouts in Baihua.


As not all species were given unique names by harvesters, I assess species diversity both as the total unique observed morphospecies and the total named species per bout. Harvesting bouts are sometimes focused on gathering only T. matsutake, while, in other cases, multiple species are collected. Over 38 bouts, about 2.73 more unique morphospecies were collected than unique named species (Table 5). These results indicate that not all morphologically distinct local species require names in order to be recognized as edible and/or commercially valuable.

The average time per bout observed in Baihua is nearly identical to the average hours per day spent mushroom harvesting reported by interviewees in Nanhua (Table 6). Because mushroom harvesting occupies an average of around four hours a day, it can be combined with additional livelihood activities during a single workday. During ethnographic work, harvesters were observed to plan their mushroom harvesting days based on precipitation patterns, since fruiting bodies are locally known to emerge more frequently following rainfall than during dry weather periods.

Reported mushroom incomes varied between Baihua and the neighboring Nanhua communities. In Baihua, the mean reported mushroom income was 15,167 RMB ($2,427 USD [Conversion rate based on October 2014 rate of RMB: USD of 1: 0.16.]) (SD = 9,992, N = 46 [respondents with at least one response for mushroom income]). The maximum reported mushroom income was 47,450 RMB ($7,592 USD). In the neighboring Nanhua communities, the mean reported mushroom income was only 5,570 RMB ($891 USD) (SD = 7867, N = 39). The Nanhua interviews included some individuals who reported collecting mushrooms, but not having any associated income. The maximum reported mushroom income in the Nanhua sites is similar to that in Baihua, at 40,000 RMB ($6,400 USD). Income discrepancies between sites may be related to the amount of available mushroom-producing forest (particularly forest areas with abundant high-value T. matsutake), as well as alternative income-generating opportunities in each community.

Table 6.

Time spent harvesting mushrooms across several time scales. Data from Nanhua sites is based on interviews. Data from Baihua is based on harvester reports and observed harvesting bouts.


Local forests are divided into several distinct land tenure regimes, both collectively and privately managed. Interviewees in the Nanhua communities were asked where they commonly collect mushrooms. Each interviewee reported harvesting mushrooms in only one type of forest, regardless of the species. Most collect mushrooms on their own private forest or ziliusenlin (87.18%), while a few interviewees reported collecting mushrooms in collective forests or jitilin (7.69%), and in other households' private forests (2.56%) (n = 39). By contrast, in Baihua, mushroom harvesting is regulated at the community level. All community members gather mushrooms on temporarily contracted land, which may be private or collective forest.


This study assesses ethnomycological knowledge in Nanhua through three modes of inquiry, capturing a more holistic understanding of the scope of mycological knowledge in the region than can be reached through any single method. Up to 54 folk species of mushrooms are commonly collected in the four study communities. Although interviews facilitated rapid data collection about individual and household mushroom-related knowledge, incomes, and practice, direct observation of mushroom harvesting bouts revealed a wider diversity of mushroom species. For example, two common regionally-recognized gourmet and commercially-valuable mushrooms—mechiqia (a milkcap, possibly Lactifluus distantifolius) and luomeshe (yellow tiger paw, Albatrellus ellisii)—were observed during bouts but not mentioned during recall interviews.

Directly observing mushroom harvests can serve to ground-truth the diversity of species reported during interviews. Although interviews may capture the cognitive salience and perceived importance of particular mushroom species, it may not accurately predict the abundance of a given species in local forests. For example, although only one interviewee reported commonly collecting both jimeshe (Amanita hemibapha or, in Mandarin, huangluosan) and tamechi (Russula sp.), these species were commonly observed in local forests and collected in 16 and 20 observed harvesting bouts, respectively. On the other hand, meleisong (refers to an as of yet not clearly identified color-changing porous mushroom) was mentioned in 35.0% (n = 60) of interviews in Baihua, yet was neither mentioned by interviewees in neighboring communities nor physically observed during the study period. Seasonal differences in mushroom fruiting patterns also play a role in species observations, as well as how likely they are to be mentioned by harvesters.

Relative species abundance can also be assessed through direct observation of mushroom harvests. For example, one bout conducted by a group of 10 harvesters was reported to have yielded an estimated 55 kg of achimepei (possibly Lactifluus glaucescens) and 3 kg of mechiqia (possibly Lactifluus distantifolius). These recalled harvest amounts offer insight into the relative local abundance of these two closely related species. Furthermore, the particular forest parcel where these mushrooms were gathered is known for producing the most achimepei of any local forest area. Local spatial knowledge of mushroom abundance may embed deeper understandings of forest ecology and micro-climates. Nuanced understandings of local landscapes are important contributions towards a holistic approach to managing socioecological systems.

If we contrast the minimal reporting of these well-known mushrooms with several unique reports or observations of less well-known species, the potential to overlook rare local fungi species is apparent. In Nanhua, I found that limiting species documentation to only those that are mentioned by more than one interviewee inadvertently overlooks certain regionally renowned species. For example, wood ear (Auricularia sp. or muer) and termite mushroom (Termitomyces sp. or jizong) are widely known as gourmet wild edible mushrooms, yet were neither frequently mentioned by locals nor observed during the study period. In addition, in one bout, a Lactarius species with particularly closely-spaced gills was juxtaposed by a local harvester against the more common species of wide-spaced gilled Lactarius. Although this morphospecies was neither given a distinct name nor mentioned during interviews, it may represent a unique species that contributes to local biodiversity and ecosystem functioning.

While forests in the study communities are ecologically similar, mushrooms seem to be less important for local livelihoods in the Nanhua communities than they are in Baihua. Interviewees reported far fewer distinct mushroom species, both on average and in total, compared to interviewees in Baihua. The higher percentage of interviewees reporting commonly collecting one or more mushroom species in Baihua compared to the neighboring three Nanhua communities (82% and 65% respectively) may be the result of several factors. First, this difference may be an artifact of the data collection method or differences in sample sizes, since interviews were conducted at different times of year and through different sampling strategies. It is also possible, however, that the different roles wild mushrooms play in these respective communities may influence their responses. Baihua is locally recognized as having extensive forest landholdings, while the neighboring communities' forest acreage may be more limited.

Local Tools for Distinguishing Species

Accurately identifying mushrooms before selling or eating them is an important aspect of harvesting wild mushrooms, both in Yunnan and elsewhere. Harvester knowledge about mushroom species identification in Nanhua is obtained solely through experience. Currently, there are no local field guides to wild mushrooms and new harvesters often learn from their parents or other experienced local harvesters. Although the process of knowledge transmission is beyond the scope of the current paper, here I discuss mushroom identification knowledge as it is embedded in local mycological nomenclature. Yi mushroom names in Nanhua often involve three primary themes: 1) morphological attributes, 2) species habitat and ecology, and 3) metaphorical names.

Mycologists often discourage the use of color as a primary tool for fungi identification. This is because, depending on the age of the fruiting body, its ecological context, and recent weather patterns, a given species may display a highly variable color palette (Arora 2008). Moreover, classifying color in a global context can be difficult since the meaning of color descriptions may vary, and photographs or drawings present particular specimens rather than the range of variation within a species (Arora 1979). This is often considered generally accepted knowledge (Morris 2000). However, Yi mushroom harvesters in Nanhua regularly distinguish between similar species using color as the defining characteristic. It may be that, within the defined spatial scale of an administrative township, variation in mushroom fruiting body color is minimal. In addition, in Nanhua, edible wild fungi are highly abundant, while look-alike poisonous fungi are relatively rare (or at least not a major concern among mushroom harvesters). There may be local ecological conditions that allow Nanhua harvesters to rely on color for species identification to a greater degree than is possible elsewhere.

Reliance on anatomical features other than color to identify fungi species has been noted among various mushroom harvesting cultures (e.g., Arora 1979; Morris 2000). Mushroom fruiting body flesh texture may be described as leathery, chalk-like, brittle, or woody, as well as a variety of other textures (Arora 1979). Yi mushroom names often encode information about the species' texture. For example, tameye is a “slippery pine mushroom,” while mechiqia is “sweet brittle mushroom.” Color changing properties are also frequently referenced in mushroom names and knowledge in Nanhua. On the contrary, none of the documented mushroom names include references to a mushroom's smell.

Noting the relative importance of color and surface texture for identifying mushrooms among Yi harvesters also relates to an important observation about the development and scope of taxonomic systems. Although some mycologists aim to identify mushroom species in order to situate the species within the broader international classification system, for a local harvester, mushroom taxonomy serves a different purpose. Mushroom harvesters instead focus on identifying mushrooms based on the local, rather than global, context of mushroom species. This may allow more rapid species identification assessments than could be accomplished using a universal fungi dichotomous key or genetic testing to verify a species' identity. Within a local taxonomic system, it may be important to identify the main traits where organisms exhibit variation and, thereby, may serve as identifying features within a given ecological context. The degree of variation in particular traits within a local context may be a driver of differentiation in folk taxonomies.

Ecological knowledge is also embedded in mushroom nomenclature in Nanhua. Some local ectomycorrhizal fungi form symbiotic relationships with particular plant species, the knowledge of which may be encoded in their local names. For example, tameye is named for its association with a certain local pine species, while semeye is known to be found near a different edible, nut-bearing pine tree species. Mushrooms may also be used as temporal indicator species for the timing of important events. Although not encoded in its name, the species chume (Lactarius sp. or tonglujun) is used by harvesters in Baihua to mark the onset of the mushroom season. As T. matsutake is a highly valuable local non-timber forest product, timing the annual forest harvesting rights auction to align just before the emergence of this species is of critical importance. Some locals have reported that chume emerges starting several weeks before T. matsutake and can be used as a temporal indicator species. If the auction were held too late or too early, this might influence harvesters' incomes and ability to assess the risk of investing in mushroom harvesting in a given year. Additional information about the meaning of local mushroom names may be found in the  Appendix (Supplement.pdf).

Specificity and Generalization

Taxonomic systems are often nested into multiple levels of specificity. In this study, greater taxonomic specificity was documented from directly observing mushroom harvests than in the interviews. For example, in recall-based interviews in Baihua, harvesters reported collecting a local toothed fungus named chiboli. During harvesting observations, the chiboli category was further refined into several distinctly colored varieties, including chibolipewte and chibolinihe. The differentiation between varieties of the same general mushroom type was only documented through observational, rather than recall, data. Without direct observations, chiboli may have been documented as a single mushroom species, rather than as both a species and as a potential folk generic (Berlin 1973).

Another difference between observational and recalled ethnomycological data is illustrated by achimepeiluopai—a purple Russula species—that was frequently observed during harvesting bouts but not mentioned in interviews. This discrepancy highlights a major issue with relying on recall ethnobiological data alone. In interviews, achimepei was frequently named as a commonly collected species. However, the name achimepei commonly refers to both a general category of Russula-like species, as well as to a specific white Lactifluus species. This distinction between multiple species within the multi-level achimepei taxonomic group was not reported during interviews, but rather only documented during harvesting observations.

Morris (2000) notes that the biological category “fungi” among the Chewa people of Malawi only includes edible fungi. By contrast, inedible and poisonous fungi are instead grouped with all other non-utilitarian organisms into a general group of harmful or “useless thing[s]” (Morris 2000: 77). Similarly, in Chiapas, Lampman (2004) found a clear distinction between nomenclature for useful and unusable fungi species, with greater linguistic detail given to useful than non-useful species. He argues that this clear distinction between fungi categories promotes careful identification and safe use of wild mushrooms (Lampman 2004). Yi mushroom taxonomy includes both edible and inedible fungi in the same category, but does distinguish between unique economically valuable species and less distinctive ones. Many harvesters will refer to mushrooms they collect as zajun or miscellaneous mushrooms. In the Nanhua interviews, many harvesters reported this as a catch-all category for the less cognitively salient mushrooms they collect. Distinguishing between named valuable mushrooms (usually T. matsutake and B. edulis) and unnamed non-valuable mushrooms (zajun) highlights the primary importance of wild fungi as an income source in Nanhua.

Many of the most commercially valuable species are commonly referred to in the study communities using their Mandarin names, rather than Yi language names. These species include songrong (T. matsutake), niuganjun (B. edulis), and the many color-changing, or congjun, species. By contrast, some of the less commercially valuable species that are also not usually eaten often lack specific names. These species might be grouped together as zajun or called by general descriptive names such as “little yellow mushrooms” (xiaohuangjun). The latter practice is reminiscent of some North American amateur mycologists' references to LBMs (“little brown mushrooms”) to refer to little brown mushrooms that cannot readily be distinguished from one another. Mushroom names in Nanhua seem to follow a gradient, where those species eaten locally are more likely to have a name in Yi, while those that are more commercially valuable are referred to in Mandarin, and, finally, those that are only moderately valuable and not commonly eaten are grouped into more general categorical names rather than distinguished individually.


Local and indigenous knowledge systems are critical for effective forest management and environmental conservation (Anderson 2005; Fowler and Lepofsky 2011; Gavin et al. 2015). Recognition of local indigenous knowledge is particularly important in Yunnan. The province has been the focus of both national and international environmental initiatives, within which local ethnic groups are swept up as both drivers of environmental degradation and purveyors of important indigenous knowledge (Fox et al. 2009; Hathaway 2013; Sturgeon 2005). The results here build on previous findings about the potential for local ethnomycological knowledge to promote sustainable mushroom management practices in Yunnan (Brown et al. 2018).

This study documents over 50 distinct, named local mushroom species among indigenous Yi wild mushroom harvesters in Nanhua county through interviews, harvest observations, and ethnographic fieldwork. Direct harvesting observations yielded the highest number of distinct morphospecies, including many species that were harvested but did not have local names or for which the name was unknown. This suggests that, in these study sites, some harvesters may be more familiar with a species' function than its name, questioning an assumption that species require names in order to be accurately identified. Furthermore, direct observation yielded a more hierarchical structure to wild fungi nomenclature than interviews did. Many interviewees reported only general types of mushrooms or folk generics, while, during focal follows, specific varieties of these general types were observed. At the same time, some mushroom species were mentioned during interviews, but not observed during focal follows. These discrepancies suggest that the two methods may be capturing distinct aspects of local ecological knowledge and conditions. Observations may be capturing spatially and temporally contingent species abundance, while interviews may capture more socially salient species, such as those with high economic or culinary value.

Local species vary by whether they have local Yi language names, are referred to primarily by their Mandarin names, or are grouped into general descriptive categories. In general, more economically valuable mushrooms seem to be referred to by Mandarin names, while less valuable mushrooms are referred to in Yi or may lack a local name altogether. Color and morphological features, such as texture and shape, are common components of wild mushroom names, and likely useful for species identification purposes. Although harvesters in the U.S. are often cautioned against relying on color to identify wild mushrooms (e.g., Arora 1979), local mushroom names and differentiation in Nanhua are often based on color. In particular, color is often used to distinguish between specific morphospecies within a broader folk generic category (e.g., “purple Russula” and “red Russula”).

Local mycological knowledge in Nanhua encompasses local ecology, species identification, and uses of common mushroom species. Preserving and documenting ethnomycological knowledge highlights the importance of fungi in local ecosystems and livelihoods. Future assessments of wild mushroom biodiversity and sustainable management might benefit from greater attention to local mycological knowledge and practice.


This research was supported by a U.S. National Science Foundation GRFP fellowship (DGE-1147470) and fellowships from the Center for East Asian Studies at Stanford University. Interviews in the Nanhua sites were supported by the Atkinson Center at Cornell University and the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees, and Agroforestry as part of a joint project with Timothy McLellan. I would like to thank both local and nonlocal research assistants in each of the field sites, as well as Samantha Karunarathna and Li Huili for their assistance with mushroom identification. Thanks also goes to Peter Mortimer and Jianchu Xu for their support, as well as to Timothy McLellan for his collaboration in certain phases of this research. Finally, this research would not have been possible without the ongoing support of community members in Baihua.

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Madeline Brown "Yi Ethnomycology: Wild Mushroom Knowledge and Use in Yunnan, China," Journal of Ethnobiology 39(1), 131-157, (3 April 2019).
Published: 3 April 2019

ethnoecological methods
nontimber forest products
southwest China
traditional ecological knowledge
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