While the image of China most commonly seen in the West is of a rapidly industrialising economic superpower, China's vast land-mass contains many areas that have seen little development and it in these areas, especially the mountainous areas of southern Zhejiang/northern Fujian provinces that the majority of medicinal mushroom cultivation takes place.
In these areas the Chinese government has identified mushroom growing, along with ecotourism, as promising industries with the potential to improve the economic wellbeing of local communities. In consequence the government has supported a dramatic increase in mushroom production in recent years. Shiitake production has increased from half a million tonnes in 1995 to four million tonnes in 2012 with many villages lifted out of poverty as a result (Royse D, A Global Perspective on the High Five: Agaricus Pleurotus, Lentinula, Auricularia & Flammulina ICMBMP8 2014).
Similar to 'daodi' areas for herb cultivation, the highest quality individual mushrooms typically come from relatively narrow geographic locations. For instance, the highest quality shiitake as well as maitake are considered to come from Qingyuan country in southern Zhejiang province which has been growing shiitake since the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279). Qingyuan town even holds an annual shiitake festival in December and has been branded 'Mushroom Town'.
Further south in Gutian county, northern Fujian province, every family in many of the villages is engaged in mushroom cultivation with principal varieties cultivated being lion's mane, snow fungus and wood ear.
Further north, the hill around Longquan and in the nearby Wuyi Shan national park are dotted with family-run mushroom farms, mostly growing Reishi (ling zhi) for which the region is farmed.
In each of these areas an eco-system of spawn producers, log suppliers, mushroom growers and mushroom dryers has grown up. Expertise in specific stages of the growing/production process is provided by small family run businesses supported by government-run institutes tasked with developing, maintaining and supplying the optimum strains of the different species.
To keep costs down farmers minimise outside input whenever possible. Growing houses are typically constructed from locally sourced bamboo and in some cases covered with fern matting. When air drying is not possible the spent growth medium is used to fuel hot-air drying.
In most cases mushrooms are grown on artificial sawdust-based logs but whole logs, principally linden/basswood (Tilia americana/duan mu) are used to grow the highest quality Reishi. Species such as yong chong cao (Cordyceps militaris) which is increasingly used as a substitute for dong chong xia cao (Ophiocordyceps sinensis) are not cultivated in the open air but are rather grown in climate controlled warehouses on predominantly grain-based substrates.
The vast infrastructure of specialist suppliers for every aspect of cultivation combined with government support and economies of scale have in recent years given China a significant advantage over other major mushroom producing countries. China is now responsible for over 90 percent of the global production of most medicinal mushrooms. Mushroom consumption is forecast to continue growing rapidly, with China once again providing the lion's share. Growth in demand will bring its own challenges as cultivation expands from traditional areas; especially in accessing uncontaminated soil for cultivation of those mushrooms which grow directly in the soil, or in the case of Reishi on logs in the soil, and driven by increasing emphasis on organic standards and production.
Reprinted with thanks to British Acupuncture Council’s member magazine, Acu.