One of the world’s rare mushrooms grows wild in Saskatchewan–for now

Pickers say the lactarius indigo is under threat

Derek Hauffe

Once, when high on LSD, recounts the author and neurologist Oliver Sacks in his new book, Hallucinations, he was obsessed with the colour indigo. “It was the colour of heaven,” he writes. Sacks was desperate to see it—so much so that he began to conjure up a blob of indigo in his mind.

The lactarius indigo could have saved him a trip. The mushroom’s whitish cap looks deceptively plain, but if you flip it over, the gills are a brilliant blue. Slice into it, and the mushroom bleeds indigo-coloured milk. Cook it, and the flesh turns a greyish green. “It’s a green you’ve never seen in cooking,” says Fidel Brochu, a Quebec-based wild mushroom distributor who picked the lactarius indigo in Saskatchewan’s Torch River Provincial Forest last summer. When chef Gilles Herzog at F Bar in Montreal served them as a garnish, simmered in olive oil and cider vinegar, he made sure to explain what they were to his diners. “Sometimes clients find them bizarre,” he says. The mushrooms can be as small as a toonie or as large as dinner plates. Take a bite, and “it’s extraordinary,” says Elisabeth Poscher, who also harvests the mushroom. “It has a peppery taste. It’s—I don’t know. You have to try it.”

Up until recently, though, you had to be lucky to do so in Canada. While you can buy lactarius indigo at village markets in Guatemala, says Poscher, and in Europe there’s a trade in a related mushroom variety commonly known as the saffron milk cap (it bleeds yellow), it had never been commercialized here until recently. “It’s a rare mushroom. It’s pretty hard to find an area that can justify commercial picking,” says Brochu.

But in the Torch River forest, indigo mushrooms thrive every year. “They get huge,” says Lorne Terry, a mushroom buyer in nearby White Fox, around 400 km north of Regina. The forest, which is on Crown land, already produces what are considered to be some of the best chanterelles in the world, and pickers come from nearby White Fox and reserves in the area to get in on that market.

When the lactarius indigo was shipped out and sold in Quebec and Ontario last summer, consumers and chefs wanted more. Jonathan Forbes, owner of a wild foods supply company, sold them easily to the public at Toronto farmers’ markets for $22 a pound. Another mushroom broker, Pascal L’Archeveque, supplied chefs in Montreal who were interested in experimenting with the indigo.

But buyers now believe this trade is under threat. The provincial government is putting together a forest management plan because it says the wood in the Torch River forest is old and in a perilous state, susceptible to wind storms, insects, disease or the forest fires that are part of the natural cycle of the local ecology. The answer: logging some of the old wood. “You can either be proactive or let Mother Nature take its course,” says Bruce Walter, a forester with the provincial Ministry of Environment. Which could be devastating, he adds, because a forest fire could burn down the whole forest in an afternoon.

A public consultation took place this month, but those involved in the mushroom business are worried. Mushrooms like the indigo sprout from underground mycelium that can disappear when soil is disturbed by the machinery used to fell trees, and chanterelles feed off the root systems of the old Jack pines in the forest. Dylan Gordon, a doctoral student at the University of Toronto, says the supply in the forest is irreplaceable. Terry, for one, has been trying to stop the logging. He estimates at least a third of the town participates in the mushroom industry. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a tree hugger,” he says. But if the forest is logged, “You can basically kiss it goodbye.”

According to Guy Langlais, a researcher with the Quebec organization Biopterre, one hectare of wild mushrooms is worth $400 to $500 a season. The Torch River forest stretches 4,000 hectares. And the commercial value of the indigo has yet to be seen. It can be sold fresh or dried, and interest is just beginning.

“All mushrooms are great, but this one is amazing,” says Poscher, searching for the fitting superlative. “It is outstanding. Extraordinary.”




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One of the world’s rare mushrooms grows wild in Saskatchewan–for now

  1. The latest word in the public consultation is a positive meeting with the community and the release of a draft management plan. There is hope that a way will be found to recognize the needs of the foresters, the locals and the forest itself. These mushrooms are indeed a unique resource, and mushroom picking is a big contributor to social, economic and physical wellbeing for many of the local pickers and their familes.

    Saskatchewan Environment welcomes comments or concerns to Pat.Mackasey@gov.sk.ca, and the draft management plan for the Island Forests, of which the Torch River Forest is one, is at http://www.environment.gov.sk.ca/Default.aspx?DN=b776c8ce-24b1-430f-836f-e2d02657c561.

    • Good work Dylan,
      See you this spring.

    • Dylan thank you for sharing that. Locals do not want to see a clear cut! We have documented endangered and threatened species in the forest like the Red Headed Woodpecker. The last clear cut did not produce a healthy forest it wont grow back! At the forest management meeting they admitted they are not sure how to aproach replanting becuase of the last failure and they want to clear cut more of our forest? Torch River has had enough clear cutting already. Please email Pat.Mackasey@gov.sk.ca, and let him know you are 100% against cutting the Torch River Forest. Concerned citizens have a website at http://www.torchriverforest.com we also have a facebook group linked from there. We invite everyone to help us stop the clear cut. We need comments in to Pat by Feb 28th.

      • I do believe the deadline for comments to Pat is the 23rd April, but you would know better than I do.

  2. I would imagine a forest fire would also destroy the underground mycelium. It’s a tough situation.

    • The only people crying fire in Torch River are the politicians. Fire is better for the forest then clear cutting. There was already a clear cut at Torch River and the governments replanting effort is an addmited and miserable failure. The machines they bring in destory mycelium too. The best thing is not to litter and dont throw down cigerate butts. It is better to have a natural fire then an unnatural destructive clear cut. This isnt really about fire this is about profit.

  3. The correct scientific name is Lactarius indigo. It is not “one of the world’s rare mushrooms.” It is also mycorrhizal like chanterelles and dependent on the trees.

  4. Commercial pickers are the real threat to most all edible Mushrooms. There are for the most part no rules or regulations. They also do not pay taxes on their sales.

    • Your incorrect Jack.
      Commercial harvesting saves forests from clearcuts every year. And an educated man like your self would also know that mushrooms are just the fruit of a living underground organism, nature never puts up more than it can afford. Or are you suggesting that all the fruit orchards are in danger because humans pick the fruit off the trees to eat?
      Read some of the studies on continual harvests of wild mushrooms, the studies show crops only get better, I also see the evidence in patches we have been hitting for 2 generations now. The mushrooms are there as a crop, a fruit, to be plucked.

      As for taxes, the average picker does not pay taxes, and tragically some financially desperate people are drawn to the industry, and they work hard for their tax free dollars. I would like to see you walk a mile in their shoes, they are not soft like yours.

      Those of us involved to a larger degree in the industry do pay taxes, and we pay lots. Were it a pissing contest, I could safely say my wild mushroom business contributed 10 times the taxes you pay, and there are lots of us.
      Wild mushroom harvesting is pretty much the most sustainable activity for human food that exists. I welcome your thoughts, and hope to bring you out to a harvest one day, to one of the last few ways we can still be hunter gatherers, where you will feel your heart stir, and remember your roots as a human male.

  5. ““You can either be proactive or let Mother Nature take its course,” says
    Bruce Walter, a forester with the provincial Ministry of Environment.
    Which could be devastating, he adds, because a forest fire could burn
    down the whole forest in an afternoon.” ~~Its funny Bruce Walter should say that. Did he mention he has land there and is one of 3 people who will profit from a clear cut and that the community of Torch River doesnt want his clear cut? Can an area forester do his job with kind of bias? The forestry ministrys reports focused almost soley on harvest and profit and none of the other factors like threatened and endangered species in our forest. Bruce Walter wants his land logged and he wants to throw the provincial forest in to sweeten the deal. It sickens me.

    • At the meeting held in January, when a fire was raised as a potential concern, the people that actually LIVE in and near the forest were not concerned about it! Selective cutting was suggested to deal with the issue of disease (Dwarf Mistletoe) and replanting to be done by hand, by volunteers. The forestry guys said no one would be willing to do that for free, and many sitting there all said, “I will” or “Yes, I would”. The people care about their forest and are willing to do the work themselves to preserve it. That should say a lot!

  6. Please don’t cut down the Torch RIver Forest, I am 100% against it!

  7. PLEADE DO NOT CLEAR CUT THE TORCH RIVER FOREST

    • There is no sane nor sceintific reason to clear cut the Torch River it would be an ecological disaster like where they already clear cut in the Torch River as well as the Pasiquia hills….the government , including Bruce Walter is very aware that replanting in Torch River failed. All of the sceince says we should not cut the Torch River Forest down, if your afraid of forest fires dont build your house in the middle of a forest!

  8. Bruce Walter himself, in an unguarded moment ,has admitted that the T.R. forest is regenerating itself to a certain degree without the benefit of either forest fire or human intervention. This fact alone helps illustrate the uniqueness of this forest. It is accessable, climax pine for the most part,home to a huge variety of species both animal and vegitative, the trees are of negligible economic value of themselves, hence, not worth cutting—- what a perfect oportunity to study how a forest ages and regenerates without interference. There is no other forrest so accessable with these qualities, in Sask. And “they” want to continue with a program of clear-cut that has been proven to be marginally succeessful at best in this area ,simply because it is on a beaurocrats agenda? I would suggest putting a cease-cut on all green-wood harvesting in this forrest until every concern has been addressed and the concept of a living laboratory has been fully explored

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