In terms of species, fungi far outnumber plants. Worldwide there are an estimated 1.5 million species of fungi (compared to 250,000–420,000 flowering plants). By 2004, about 7,500 species of fungi had been recorded in New Zealand. However, this is not a true reflection of the country’s fungal diversity, because many groups of fungi have not been well studied. The actual number of species is thought to be around 22,000. Over 900 species have been recorded growing with the four species of native beech.
Like all forms of life, fungi can be threatened by habitat loss and other effects of human activity. Among New Zealand’s most endangered organisms are 49 species of fungi, including:
- Fischer’s egg (Claustula fischeri), found in only two locations
- the large pukatea bracket fungus (Ganoderma sp. ‘Awaroa’), known only from the Waikato
- several species of the genus Russula (e.g. Russula inquinata).
Where a fungus grows only on a plant species that is itself threatened, it may be more endangered than its host.
Edible or poisonous?
Some New Zealand fungi are edible, while others are unpalatable or poisonous. A few are deadly poisonous and can be easily confused with edible ones. There is no general rule to distinguish them, and tasting is never recommended when searching for edible fungi. Correct identification is essential.
Puffballs are a familiar type of fungus in New Zealand. Their Māori name is pukurau, and in earlier times, Māori cooked and ate them when fresh, and applied the spores to burns. The town of Waipukurau, in Hawke’s Bay, takes its name from the fungus.
A few native and introduced mushrooms (Psilocybe species) can cause hallucinations if eaten. Known as magic mushrooms, these small, brown species are difficult to identify, and illegal to harvest.
The New Zealand Fungal Herbarium at Landcare Research, Auckland, is the centre for scientific research on New Zealand’s fungi. It has around 80,000 dried specimens from around the world. A further 7,000 living strains of fungi are held in the adjoining national culture collection. Fungal scientists (mycologists) do research on native fungi, and on introduced fungi that pose a biosecurity risk because they cause plant diseases.