Kurlansky (2000) in his The Basque history of the world said that the Basque have a saying ‘Izena duen guzia omen da’ – that which has a name exists. This need for a name echoed around the world, even in South Pacific, and as Bail (1998) wrote in his novel Eucalyptus:
We are not comfortable if a thing we have seen isn’t attached to a name. An object can hardly be said to exist until it has a name, even an approximate name.
But names are tricky things as they can be misapplied and are subject to change as societies change. In New Zealand, we have a wood decay fungus that is known as ‘Taranaki wool’. Scientifically this fungus was originally thought to be the European species Auricularia auricula-judae, and then identified as Auricularia polytricha. However, since 1988 we have accepted that it is Auricularia cornea. To the naked eye, these species all looked the same and it is only under the microscope that they can be teased apart.
The most common English language name used in New Zealand, Jew’s ear, comes straight from Europe. This name is considered to be an adaptation of Judas’ or Judas ear as it is said to have fruited on the dead wood of the elder tree from which Judas Iscariot hanged himself following his betrayal of Jesus Christ. In recent year political correctness has seen a shift to jelly ear, wood ear and even Chinese ear. Interestingly Jew’s ear is seen as anti-Semitic or racist while Chinese ear is not.
Luckily in New Zealand, we have an alternative name – Taranaki wool. Towards the end of the nineteenth century an enterprising merchant and businessman, Chew Chong (Winder 2003), who ran his business (Ng 2010) from New Plymouth in the province of Taranaki. Chew Chong had seen the abundant fruiting of Auricularia cornea on farms in Taranaki and established a significant export trade in dried mushrooms, 1888 tonnes between 1872 and 1883 (Buchanan and Barnes 2002), to China. An excellent account of this business was written by Brightwell (1993).
However, the trade was unsustainable because it was a by-product of land clearance for farming. Most New Zealand farmland was produced through the burning of the temperate rainforest that clothed the land. Auricularia cornea boomed as it decayed the large quantities of wood that remained after the fires and rotted in the newly established pastures.
Here is a description of bush burning from the Waikato in 1847 by L. Johnson (FRFANZ):
We have seen immense volumes of smoke issuing all day from the forest around Matamata and when within 2 miles of it, we distinctly saw its northern extremity on fire, which extending to the plain had ignited the dry grass and fern and even reached our track…. hundreds of trees were in flames from their roots to their topmost branches.
A full history of fire as a tool for land clearance, changing attitude to conservation and the legislation to address the changes can be found at FRFANZ.
Auricularia cornea is a wood decay fungus usually appearing within 18 months of the death of the tree or branch. It rots the newest or sapwood and is succeeded by those decay fungi that rot the heart wood. The fruitbodies are rubbery and robust and tend to dry out in dry weather than revive when it rains to produce and shed more spores. For more photos of this fungus from Taranaki see TERRAIN (2011).
Bail M 1998. Eucalyptus. Text Publishing Co., Melbourne.
Brightwell S 1993. Feasting on fungi. New Zealand Geographic 18 (June): 34-58.
Buchanan PK, Barnes J 2002. The mushroom industry in New Zealand. International Society for Mushroom Science.
FRFANZ. Rural fire history 1840-1919. Forest and Rural Fire Association of New Zealand
Kurlansky M 2000. The Basque history of the World. Vintage, Random House, London.
Ng J 2010. Chew Chong – biography. Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand.
TERRAIN 2011. Wood-ear fungi. T.E.R.R.A.I.N – Taranaki Educational Resource: Research, Analysis and Information Network.
Winder V 2003. Chew Chong plays leading role in dairy industry. Puke Ariki, New Plymouth