When Magellan, in 1520, sailed into the strait separating South America from it’s Southernmost tip, the hills seemed to be erupting in volcanic fires so large they could be seen from sea. This was certainly a land of fire and so he aptly named the archipelago, Tierra del Fuego, The land of Fire.
Huddled to keep warm for 10,000 years, without the development of shelter or clothing, were the Yaghan people. They built and kept these fires stoked throughout the region, including at the center of their primitive fishing boats. They were a hunter gatherer population that would lather their bodies in rendered fish and seal grease when they parted ways with the fires to forage in the foothills.
To maintain a core body temperature they had to constantly locate and consume high caloric foods, such as, rats, birds, fish, mussels, berries and mushrooms.
I had been wandering, with my production partner Viv Smith, through the beech tree forests of Tierra del Fuego ( “Nothofagus Antarctica”), just outside the southernmost city in the world, Ushuaia, Argentina. We had just returned from Antarctica and were now looking for the end of the world, Fin del Mundo as the locals call it.
Unusual neon orange balls began to stand out on the beech trees, as we neared the Beagle Channel. At first we thought they were some kind of flower or fruiting body produced by the tree, however for me this didn’t make sense on a beech tree. I was curious. I spotted a rather large outcropping of them and began to get excited as I rounded the tree for a closer inspection.
Large golf ball sized growths were clustered on a protruding wood gall made up of the trees wood itself. Think of a gall as a hard woody knot or scar on the trunk or branch of the tree. The gall is abnormal growth stimulated by an infection from bacteria, virus or fungus. The infection manipulates the trees natural phytochemicals to create the gall. I immediately knew these orange growths were not part of the tree. They were an infection, likely a fungus of some kind. I was fascinated.
It turns out, so too was Charles Darwin when he put ashore from the HMS Beagle, in 1833. It was in this exact location, on what is now known as the Beagle Channel, that Darwin collected these otherworldly orange tree fungi, just as I was doing today. His, however, ended up in the Royal Botanical Gardens at the Kew, where you can still find the very specimen he collected, dried and preserved. It was subsequently named Cyttaria Darwinii after the renowned naturalist.
Cyttaria Darwinii, or beech orange, is a fungus which had been discovered 10,000 years earlier by the Yaghan people. Darwin only brought it to modern science. Cyttaria, itself has been around for about 180 million years, since the time of the Gwandana supercontinent and is the only fungi counted amongst the select group of Antarctic flora. The Yaghan, in pursuit of high caloric food sources encountered the beech orange in spring and summer. They found it edible and added it to their diet, to the point that it made up a large percent of their caloric intake. As an added bonus, the fungi contains 15% fermentable sugars and natural yeasts, lending itself to an alcoholic drink; chicha del llau-llau.
This was all too amazing to be true and I had to find a Yaghan to understand if you can indeed eat the fungus. As great an observer and naturalist as Darwin was, I wasn’t going to poison myself with a misnomer in a footnote in his 190 year old journal. Unfortunately, I soon discovered there is only one Yaghan left in existence and she was 95 years old and lived on the other side of the Beagle Channel. I hoped there wasn’t a correlation here.
I did the next best thing. Viv and I waved down an elderly local Argentine woman, and proceeded to ask her if this strange orange fungus was edible. She didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Spanish, so after a few odd looks and lots of hand signals, I got through an absurd conversation with her, ending in an enactment of her crushing something between her two hands and putting it in her mouth, with a smile.
Good enough for me. I was going back out there to eat one. I had to know the taste and texture and film this oddity! I believe we are the first people to film the Cyttaria Darwinii and certainly the first to film ourselves eating the beech orange [click below for video!]
We found a thoroughly infested tree just off the side of a road at the base of the Tierra del Fuego mountains. You can easily pluck the fungi off of the woody gall. On closer inspection it has no smell and has a soft dry feel. There are multiple holes in the neon orange surface as numerous as golf ball dimples. These are the spore reservoirs. In the fall the fungus forcibly shoots millions of spores out these holes to infect other beech trees. The fungal ball easily tore as I split it in half with my fingers to inspect it’s composition. To my astonishment the inside has the consistency of a swollen grape without the seeds. It’s very moist and translucent with a thick spongy skin. Still no scent. It was time to try it.
I held it up for the camera and popped it in my mouth, beginning to chew in order to judge the consistency and flavor. The best way to describe it; like eating a grape wrapped in a thick skin made of white button mushroom. It has a weak fruity flavor mixed with the blandness of the button mushroom. It wasn’t great, but it was very edible and slightly chewy. I convinced Viv to try it and she immediately spit it out, so you can draw your own conclusions.
I was excited that I had been able to participate in the natural history of the Yaghan people and walk in the footsteps of one of my heros, Charles Darwin and Ferdinand Magellan. However, the slight concern that I may succumb to kidney failure took a while to leave me.
To see the rest of our travels to Tierra Del Fuego and Antarctica join us on our YouTube channel at youtube.com/thecrew1iopen and subscribe for future travel tips, how to videos and general misadventure!