Truffles more than culinary trifles

TRUFFLES: Treasures for fungi fanatics and the environment.

TRUFFLES: Treasures for fungi fanatics and the environment.

Professor Jim Trappe, one of the world’s leading experts on truffles, will be taking a group of lucky fungi fanatics into the Tops next week bent on discovering and documenting the truffles of our region. 

Why is this important?  Not to find new culinary delicacies to grace the tables of hatted restaurants, but to document the complex association of fungi, trees and the small native mammals and birds that spread the spores from tree to tree. 

Without truffles, the trees cannot grow strongly as these fungi, which are associated with plant roots, mine minerals (P, N, K, Cu, Zn, Ca etc.) from the soil and rocks and deliver these essential nutrients to the plant. In exchange, the plant provides them with food that it makes through photosynthesis. 

Through the millennia of evolutionary life, the truffle fungi have evolved a complex relationship with animals to spread from tree to tree.  When the fruiting body, the mushroom, ripens underground, it emits a scent, which attracts foraging animals. The spores pass through the digestive tract, drop in the animal’s scat and spread to find another tree. They are an important food source for small mammals like bandicoots, potoroos, bettongs, possums, native rodents, kangaroos, wallabies, quokkas, bilbies and wombats to name but a few. Unfortunately, due to predatory decimation by cats, foxes and wild dogs, many of these no longer contribute to the truffle life cycle.

Without the truffle fungi, the forest ecosystem is weakened.  Without the attention of the fungi fanatics, an estimated 1500 species yet to be discovered will lie undetected.  Perhaps they might discover a new culinary delicacy, just as in the forests of Europe where the natural food of the wild pig, the black Perigord truffle, became a highly sought after food of the rich.

Professor Tim Roberts is the director of the Tom Farrell Institute for the Environment, University of Newcastle