It is without question that the first mushroom foragers at the Cape would have been the indigenous people who nomadically roamed the peninsula from as long as 27 000 years ago. The Strandlopers, and then later the Khoe-San, must have surely kept ancient knowledge about the various types of African fungi which popped-up when conditions were favourable, passing on valuable information about the medicinal properties and edibility of certain mushrooms. Heading further up north towards the Namibian border, a certain kind of fungus has been routinely foraged by the San since the birth of their lore – the desert or Kalahari truffle – though not quite as desirable as its Italian counterpart but still considered a delicacy nonetheless. Who knows what the Khoe-San might have made of the various types of fungi that are associated with our indigenous trees? A great tragedy indeed occurred when this age-old knowledge was subsequently lost following the arrival of the first European settlers to these shores. But, along with this event came new possibilities.
After the first Dutch settlers arrived the landscape began to change rapidly. The eastern slopes of Table Mountain were converted into large plantations of oak and pine trees, fuelling the bustling timber trade at the time. Tree saplings were brought in from over the sea in bales and strategically planted in what we know as Tokai, Cecilia and Newlands forests today. Unknown to the settlers, the root systems of certain mushrooms (known as mycelium) were already present in the bales and were successfully, albeit accidentally, imported. It couldn’t have taken more than several years until the first porcini and pine rings were popping up through the pine needles during the chilly autumn and winter months. These mushrooms would have been known to the settlers already and it likely that the first porcinis were being savoured here from the late 1600’s.
From the eighteenth century, interest in the Cape’s unique floral kingdom began to gain momentum. Several renowned biologists of the time came to these shores to research, including the famed botanist Karl Zeyher and mycologist Dr. A Duthie. Indigenous species of mushrooms previously unknown to science were identified, and to this day we still have a local, edible variety of Parasol that is named after Zeyher himself.
But it wasn’t until the 1950’s when a comprehensive catalogue of edible and poisonous mushrooms was formed. Born in the late 1800’s, Edith Stephens had a fascination with mushrooms from an early age. Growing up in what were then the rolling grassy meadows of Salt River, Edith studied local varieties such as the edible Field Mushrooms when they popped up after the rain. Her passion for the natural world led her to a famed English university where she studied botany, eventually returning to Cape Town and continuing her pursuit of identifying our local mushrooms. Her reputation as a mushroom expert grew, and it wasn’t long before families would visit the Stephens residence in Rondebosch at all hours with mushrooms, in the hope of having a found a good meal. Edith was never poisoned from eating the mushrooms she picked, despite her “taste and spit” methods for identifying mushrooms – even the appropriately-named Death Cap which can bring about total liver and renal failure within days of consuming. In 1953 her two famous works on Cape mushrooms were published. Some South African Edible Fungi and Some South African Poisonous and Inedible Fungi were both excellent books on wild mushroom identification, complete with illustrations and recipes. Edith passed away in 1966 and her legacy is remembered by the Edith Stephens Wetland Park in Philippi.
At the same time, another character was acquiring an unparalleled knowledge of our floral kingdom, mushrooms included. Old Joe Masurek was a familiar face to many who lived in Cape Town more than 60 years ago. Easily recognized by his sailor’s cap, long overcoat, walking stick and sea boots, the heavily bearded Russian immigrant spent most of his time living in the mountains around the city. His extensive herbalist knowledge was acquired during his younger years spent trekking through Europe, learning the medicine of the bush. In 1915 Masurek arrived in the Cape as a middle-aged sailor and never left; the kloofs, forests, gorges and waterfalls of Table Mountain appealed to him and it is here where he made his new home. Over fourty years were spent living as a hermit, a vagabond by choice with a superior understanding of plants and their properties. He knew where to find the finest wild watercress , where the juiciest waterblommetjies grew and where the best mushrooms were to be found. The city life never appealed too much for old Masurek and he could often be found in the mountains foraging edible mushrooms, herbs and medicinal plants to sell. He passed away peacefully in Woodstock in 1955, sadly taking along his vast knowledge to the grave.
At present, there have been several local mushroom field guides which have been published and mushroom foraging is now growing in popularity – a fulfilling past time which encourages one to be in tune with the weather and nature, rewarding those in the know with some of the finest wild treats around. While there is still much to learn about the capabilities of our mushrooms, it is important to honour those who have dedicated their lives to broadening our understanding of the natural world.
*Khoe-San photography by Discover Magazine