Scientists have identified a critical symbiosis between truffles and trees, and are learning that the edible (and often prohibitively expensive) fruiting body of the fungus that grows underground are not only central to the lives of trees, but that the study of them can tell us important things about climate change.

“Without fungi we wouldn’t have trees,” says Jim Trappe, a “truffle addict,” forest mycologist for the U.S. Forest Service and Research Professor at Oregon State University in Corvallis.  “The changing climate makes them more important to us than ever.”

Trappe has studied truffles on nearly every continent and is especially passionate that the study of truffles in Australia, which is consistently drier than North America, can predict changes and challenges we should expect in coming decades.  He has visited Australia every year since 1982 and calls it “the driest place on earth for hundreds of millions of years; that’s one reason there are so many truffles there.”

“The climate is worsening,” he says, “only the worst die-hard deniers ignore the overwhelming evidence.  If it continues, the United States will have more dry weather and more forest fires.  It might get to a situation like Australia, where the fungi have already adapted to climate change, evolved to exist in tremendous wildfire and drought.”

Though 75% of the biomass of trees is above ground, Trappe says that 75% of the metabolic action that keeps them alive occurs underground.   It is this dynamic interaction between certain fungi like truffles and roots that has fascinated him during his internationally recognized career.  Trappe, the author of three books and author (or co-author) of 500 scientific papers, is captivated by the “immensely beneficial association” between the filaments of fungi in the soil that bring nutrients into the roots of trees.

“Fungi trap the water from every nook and cranny and feed it to the tree root,” he says, “and fungi, which can’t photosynthesize, need the external energy the tree provides them through photosynthesis.”

Trappe is giving a talk about truffles, their importance and the way they react to climate change at Loucks Auditorium in early December.  He is coming at the invitation of the Willamette Valley Mushroom Society.

Because they grow completely underground, truffles can’t disperse their spoors through the air the way ordinary mushrooms do.  This is why, “through billions of evolutionary experiments” Trappe says, they developed an aroma when the spoors are mature, attracting the attention and digging of pigs, dogs, bears, and even deer and squirrel.  This aroma and taste are, of course, what make the plant so attractive to gourmets around the world.

With his far-reaching knowledge of the subject, Trappe’s remarks will be of interest to everyone interested in mycology, climate change or natural systems.