FUNGI OF THE KUUJJUAQ REGION
Collections Made 12-18 August 2007 by Lawrence Millman
PROJECT REPORT: FUNGI
To the best of my knowledge, no one had ever given serious attention to the fungi
(i.e., mushrooms) of the Kuujjuaq region before my August 12-18, 2007 visit. During
this visit, I collected ~ 60 different species, including a few -- but only a few -- good edibles,
and with such a relatively large species count, I disproved the popular notion that there
aren't any fungi in the North. Actually, there would hardly be any plant life in the North
without fungi, or at least without so-called mycorrhizal fungi. For the underground portion
of these fungi, known as a mycelium, shuttles much-needed nutrients, especially nitrogen,
to the roots of 95% of all plants and trees in both the boreal forest and the tundra. If it
weren't for this shuttling service, most of the plants and trees in question would not survive.
In and around Kuujjuaq, I investigated three more or less different habitats: northern
boreal forest (southwest of Kuujjuaq), tundra (north and west of town), and the mixed-
disturbed area between the airport and the Koksoak River. Most of the fungi I identified
in these habitats were host-specific mycorrhizal species. For example, Lactarius rufus
(Red Hot Milky) and Leccinum scabrum (Birch Bolete) grew with spruce and dwarf birch,
respectively. The habitat with the greatest number of species was the area between the
airport and the Koksoak River. For it's usually the case that the greater the variety of
plants and trees, the greater the variety of fungi. On the other hand, the habitat with the
largest fungal biomass was -- perhaps surprisingly -- the tundra. One reason for this is
that there isn't as much competition for space in a tundra as there is in a forest or a mixed
habitat. Another reason: the large, anchoring roots of tundra plants and trees seem to
inspire fungal mycelia to produce fruiting bodies.
Among local Inuit, there's almost no tradition for harvesting fungi. Mushrooms are
referred to as tunitniqingit, caribou food, and the general sense I got from speaking with
elders was that they were fit for caribou, but not human consumption. One elder did
mention that the puffball known as a pujuolak was used medicinally when he was growing
up. If someone cut himself, he'd place the soft yellow spore mass of a pujuolak on the
wound, then tie it there with a string. The puffball would keep the wound from getting
infected and also aided in the healing process. Strange as this might seem, it does
have a basis in science, since fungi (pencillin is, after all, a fungus) have strong anti-
biotic properties. However, the medicinal use of pujuolaks seems to have died out in
the Kuujjuaq area.
As part of this project, I was asked to identify potentially harvestable mushrooms,
and the two species I would most recommend are Leccinum scabrum (Birch Bolete)
and Leccinum insigne (Aspen Bolete). The field differences between these two boletes
are slight -- L. scabrum usually has more pronounced projections on its stalk, and
L. insigne typically stains purplish-grey, then black when cut or bruised. As both are
good edibles, there's no need to make a positive ID before collecting them. Also, both
fruit in considerable quantities during the mushroom season, August and September.
Since they likewise fruit in considerable quantities in other parts of Canada, I would
not encourage attempts to market them. Note: Another good edible, Rozites caperata
(Gypsy), fruits in the area, but as there's a slight risk of confusing it with a poisonous
Amanita, I would not recommend it to beginners.
As a cautionary measure, I asked Michael Kwan to test tissue samples of several
Leccinum specimens for toxic elements. After all, the harvest of edible mushrooms
in certain parts of northern Europe has occasionally been curtailed due to pollutants in
the air or the ground. The result of these tests was reassuring. There were measurable
amounts of cadmium and mercury in the mushrooms' caps, but the concentrations were
not high enough to be a health concern. Lead was hardly detectable, and nickel and
arsenic levels were both very low. Thus the two Leccinums are safe to collect (idea:
give them an Inuktitut name).
With this project, I hope I have laid a useful foundation for the future study of fungi
-- whether by me or someone else -- in the Kuujjuaq region, indeed in Nunavik itself.