China Trip Unveils Morel Cultivation Mysteries

Posted: March 13, 2017

M.S. student Siyi Ge and Dr. John Pecchia obtain valuable morel cultivation research results at Chinese Morel Industry Conference.
Siyi Ge | Image: Michael Houtz, Penn State

Siyi Ge | Image: Michael Houtz, Penn State

M.S. student Siyi Ge and Dr. John Pecchia flew to Songzi City, China, for the Chinese Morel Industry Conference and the Development of Global Valuable Edible Fungi Forum held March 10–12, 2017. More than 400 people attended, including farmers, researchers, investors, and morel lovers.

This morel industry conference provided a great opportunity for Siyi and Dr. Pecchia to see how farmers grow morels in China, especially because there is currently no morel cultivation industry in the U.S.

The conference featured the most recent research results and key techniques in morel (Morchella spp.) cultivation. Siyi gave a brief presentation on her morel research, which included U.S.-based biology and taxonomy studies on morels.

Morels are one of the most prized edible fungi in the world. Ronald D. Ower first artificially cultivated them in the U.S. in 1982 and applied for the first patent in 1985 (No. 4594809). A morel farm built at Michigan State University in 2005 started the commercial cultivation of morels. However, production stopped in 2008 due to technical difficulties, and the entire U.S. morel cultivation industry ceased.

The Development of Morel Artificial Cultivation in China

Scientists in China have conducted morel cultivation research since 1980, which has resulted in successful production reports, notably by Douxi Zhu, Head, Mianyang Edible Fungi Research Institute of Sichuan. This research institute began work on morel artificial cultivation in 1985, and scientists there achieved their first morel fruiting bodies in 1992. By 2012 their production techniques became popular in fields throughout China.

According to the statistical data provided by the China Edible Fungi Industry Chapter, the cultivated area of morels in China is currently 23,400 acres, compared to just 1,000 acres in 2011, and nearly four times greater than the amount in 2014 (Fig. 1). Although the total cultivated area slightly decreased in 2016, the acreage amount appears stable.

Fig. 1 Image: Sigi Ge, Penn State

Morel cultivation regions are located in more than twenty Chinese provinces. Sichuan province accounts for 44 percent (Fig. 2) of China’s production area. The second-largest morel cultivation province is Hubei, where Songzi City is located.

Fig. 2 Image: Sigi Ge, Penn State

There are three clades of Morchella spp. and more than thirty species: rufobrunnae clade, esculenta clade, and elata clade. Chinese scientists narrowed the artificially-cultivated species to: M. importuna, M. sextelata (Fig. 3), M. septimelata, and M. esculenta. M. importuna is the most widely cultivated species in China (greater than 95 percent) due to the superior productivity and stability.

Fig. 3 Morchella sextelata | Image: Sigi Ge, Penn State

The Techniques of Morel Artificial Cultivation in China

An innovative technique applied by Dr. Douxi Zhu significantly changed the morel cultivation industry in China: the application of nutrient bags to provide an additional nutrient source. In 2000 Dr. Zhu hired farmers to help him transport spawn bags (mycelium used to inoculate the soil), but they accidentally left a few bags on the soil surface. Ten days later he returned to find a jumble of white, powdery substances around the bags, which had openings downward. When fruiting bodies appeared, he found more morels from the region that had the forgotten bags. This inspired Dr. Zhu to create the technology, which is now a key step in morel cultivation.

Although Ronald Ower first described the additional nutrient source concept in 1982, he failed to realize and demonstrate its importance in morel cultivation. The science behind the application is that Morchella spp. sexual development requires a comparable nutrient-poor environment. However, nutrient-poor soil cannot support new mycelia growth without an additional nutrient source to facilitate the growth.

Chinese growers fill bags with wheat, sawdust, corn, etc. and place the bags on the soil surface several days after spawning to increase productivity. They later remove the bags to trigger the Morchella spp. sexual development. In regions south of the Changjiang River, such as in Hubei province, farmers spawn from mid-October to mid-November, with regions north of Changjiang River starting as early as mid-September.

This flow chart (Fig. 4) shows the widely-applied techniques used in morel cultivation in China.

Fig. 4 Image: Sigi Ge, Penn State

The morel-rice rotation and morel-tree intercropping pattern (Fig. 5) appear in some regions.

Fig. 5 Morel-tree intercropping pattern | Image: Sigi Ge, Penn State

Problems Hidden Behind the Developing Morel Industry in China

Along with the rapid development of morel cultivation in China, some problems have arisen, and they may have a detrimental impact on the morel industry.

  1. Not 100 percent artificial cultivation. Compared to other mature edible fungi industries, such as Agaricus bisporus (most popular edible mushroom in the U.S.), shiitake, and oyster mushrooms, productivity of morels largely depends on weather conditions. Additionally, soil conditions vary significantly in different geographical locations. The cultivation is better termed bionic than artificial.
  2. Reduction of soil nutrients. The continuous cropping obstacle has been a serious problem in morel cultivation. The perpetual productivity of morels on the same soil tends to decrease after two to three years, even to the point of no harvest at all, which forces farmers to find new land to cultivate. Unless researchers soon determine the essential nutrients for morel production, the cost of continuously cultivating morels will become prohibitive due to the need for shaded structures built for outdoor cultivation.
  3. Pest and disease problems. Most farmers have little knowledge of Morchella spp. and little access to disease management information. Studies on pests and diseases of Morchella spp. are extremely limited. There have been no pest and disease management strategies developed for morel cultivation.
  4. Cost control. The plastic nutrient bags and plastic greenhouses can be very expensive to purchase and/or build. Is it necessary to use additional nutrient bags? This question requires further scientific investigation to optimize production efficiencies.

Even though there has recently been significant progress in morel cultivation in China, nearly 80 percent of morel farmers cannot earn a livelihood from it, and some are losing money due to inconsistent production. The spawn sellers, training agencies, and bidders are those who are able to currently profit from the morel cultivation industry. A local farmer reported to Siyi that the cost of cultivating morels is terrifying, about 10,000 CNY per acre ($1,430 USD per acre), necessitating the harvest of at least 67 kg of fresh morels per acre to not lose money. Though there are reports of much higher yields, this minimum is often difficult to accomplish and maintain for a large number of farmers. The morel cultivation techniques are new and not time tested with little known about the nutritional and environmental requirements needed to produce Morchella spp. consistently and make it profitable for the farmer.

Contact Information

Siyi Ge
  • M.S. Student
Phone: 814-863-1932
John A. Pecchia, Ph.D.
  • Assistant Professor
Phone: 814-865-1008