The majority of edible mushrooms are typically tiny, but there exists a colossal variety in West Africa and Zambia that surpasses all others in size.
Mushroom-gathering is a significant activity in Zambia, and one particular mushroom species, the Termitomyces titanicus, holds a special place of importance. While the largest organism and fungus in the world belongs to the Armillaria genus and is currently consuming a large area of Oregon, the Termitomyces titanicus is recognized as the biggest edible mushroom globally, having a cap that measures over three feet (one meter) in diameter. Surprisingly, this massive fungus was not discovered by Western science until 1980, despite its size and popularity in native markets.
In Zambia, a family acquired a massive Termitomyces mushroom while travelling to Lusaka, the capital city. The name of this type of mushroom is derived from its growth inside termite mounds. Termitomyces mushrooms have a mutually beneficial relationship with termites and feed on their fecal matter. The decomposition of mushroom tissue also serves as a food source for termites. In exchange, the fungi receive a consistent supply of plant material in an ideal environment with precise temperature and moisture levels to promote growth.
The reason behind the massive size of mushrooms is linked to their relationship with termite colonies. These fungi receive an abundance of resources from the termites, who collect organic material to feed the millions of individuals in their colonies. However, the size of the mushroom isn’t only due to the amount of energy it obtains. It also needs to spread its spores to be found by suitable termite species, which can be challenging in savanna ecosystems where termite mounds are patchy. To increase its chances of being discovered, the fungus has evolved to produce one of the largest mushrooms on the planet. The more spores produced by the mushroom, the easier it is for termite foragers to locate them and initiate the mutualistic relationship.
The Termitomyces titanicus, discovered in a rural village near Upemba National Park, thrives during the rainy season when mushrooms are abundant. Its texture is meaty and its flavor is savory with a smoky aftertaste, making it a highly sought-after delicacy. One cap of this giant mushroom is sufficient to feed an entire family for a complete meal.