Art. LXXII.–On the Export of Fungus from New Zealand.
[Read before the Wellington Philosophical Society, 11th January, 1879.]
In several striking characteristics Fungi bear a similar relation to all other plants to that borne by Insecta to all other animals. A larger number of plants is included in Fungi (regarded as a single order) than in any other group of similar value.* The largest number of similar animals is comprised under Insecta. Each group exhibits a large amount of polymorphism and parasitism. Each contains many species injurious to man, and but few from which he derives direct benefit. While other large groups of
[Footnote] * This assertion is at variance with the comparative estimates of the number of species comprised under different natural orders as stated in Botanical Text Books, but is warranted by the known results in countries where Fungi have been investigated with some approach to completeness. In Great Britain, for instance, over 3,000 species of Fungi are known, considerably more than twice the number of Phœnogams and Filicales put together.
animals and plants are constantly yielding additions to the catalogue of organic substances directly or indirectly utilized by man, Fungi and Insecta, notwithstanding their vast numbers, but rarely assist to swell the roll. Any addition to the useful species of either is therefore of special inteterst, and on this, as well as other grounds, it is desirable to draw attention to the export of Fungus from this colony. It is practically restricted to a single species–Hirneola polytricha, Mont.,–which is plentiful on decaying timber in all our forest districts.
Prior to 1872. it was exported only in small quantities, but in that year the amount declared at the various ports in the colony was 57 tons 14 cwt., valued at £1,927; in 1877 it had increased to 220 tons 5 cwt., valued at £11,318; the total amount exported during the seven years ending 1878 being 838 tons, valued at £37,812. Its gradual increase will be seen from the following return, for which I am indebted to the Collector of Customs. Fractions are omitted for convenience:—
From this it will be seen that the declared value is about £44 per ton, or more than four and a-half times the nominal price of one penny per pound paid by the merchant to the collector. As the fungus does not require to undergo any process to prepare it for market, the actual outlay connected with it is confined to the cost of collection and spreading in the open air or in sheds for a few days to get rid of moisture. This, however, is rarely necessary in the summer. At any rate, we have, in round numbers, the sum of £8,000 to represent the actual remuneration of the collectors, while the merchants' profit is represented by the disproportionate figure of £29,000. China is the sole market for our fungus. In 1873, at the suggestion of Mr. Seed, Commissioner of Customs, the Colonial Secretary made enquiry as to the purposes to which it was applied by the Chinese. The Colonial Secretary at Hong Kong stated in reply that it was “much prized by the Chinese community as a medicine, administered in the shape of a decoction to purify the blood, and was also used on fast days, with a mixture of vermicelli and bean-curd, instead of animal food.” Later information shows that it is largely used in soups as ordinary food. It was further stated that it was sold retail at about. 10 ½d. per lb. As the price paid to the collector in New Zealand does not exceed 1d. per lb., it is
clear that a high rate of profit must be realized by the merchant and retailer alike.
Specimens of our plant, from Christchurch and Wellington, were exhibited at the Vienna Exhibition under the name of Jew's-ear Fungus, Hirneola auricula-juda, an allied species which occurs in the colony, but which is decidedly rare when compared with H. polytricha. The two plants may be easily distinguished, H. polytricha being greyish or cinereous, while H. auricula-judæ is usually of a pinkish tint.
Another species of Hirneola is collected in Tahiti for export to China, and a larger species, found in Northern China, is said to be extensively collected for home use.
We have thus before us the singular phenomenon of a product, utterly useless in the countries where it is found, being utilized by one of the least progressive people on the face of the earth, thus reversing the ordinary condition in which the civilized race utilizes the natural products of others less favoured.