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Sri Lankan expert cultivates mushroom passion in Yunnan

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A vendor arranges edible wild mushrooms for sell at a wild mushroom trade market in Kunming, southwest China's Yunnan Province, July 2, 2023. (Xinhua/Jiang Wenyao)

(Xinhua) — Surrounded by a sprawling forested expanse at Qujing Normal University in southwest China’s Yunnan Province, Samantha Chandranath Karunarathna, accompanied by his group of research students, crouched to gather wild mushrooms.

Karunarathna, a professor in the school of biological resources and food engineering at the university, hails from Kandy, the second-largest city in Sri Lanka. His early fascination with the myriad mushrooms thriving at the Peradeniya Royal Botanic Gardens in his hometown nurtured his dream of becoming a mushroom expert.

Following his passion, Karunarathna came to the wild mushroom paradise of Yunnan in 2012. The province boasts a diversity of approximately 900 wild edible mushroom species, constituting about 90 percent of China’s total wild edible mushroom varieties.

After spending over a decade in Yunnan, Karunarathna playfully describes himself as “a mushroom born in Sri Lanka and grown in Yunnan.”

Karunarathna’s journey to Yunnan began when he undertook his postdoctoral research at the Kunming Institute of Botany, Chinese Academy of Sciences. His research primarily delved into the classification, evolutionary biology, and domestication of edible fungi.

In a bid to further understand Yunnan’s wild mushrooms, he once ventured into Xishuangbanna, spending three consecutive months traversing its mountains and forests, gathering wild mushrooms for research purposes.

“Those were unforgettable times that made me determined to stay in Yunnan for fungal research,” Karunarathna said, adding that his knowledge of wild mushrooms has substantially enriched since his arrival in Yunnan.

Before assuming his role at Qujing Normal University, Karunarathna had never visited Qujing. However, he soon adapted thanks to the abundant biodiversity he found on campus.

“Both toxic and edible mushrooms thrive here on campus, and it’s very satisfying to see that,” Karunarathna said. This diversity augments fungal research, as identifying various species lays the foundation for comprehensive analyses in subsequent studies.

At the university, he leads expeditions accompanied by students to classify, study, and photograph these fungal treasures. Expedition members also conduct microscopic examinations to unveil the fungi’s intricate structures, followed by DNA extraction for phylogenetic analysis. These observations ultimately determine whether a new species has been unearthed.

“Local residents have been incredibly friendly, and I’ve learned a great deal from them,” Karunarathna said. For example, he learned from the locals to line baskets with leaves to maintain the freshness of harvested mushrooms. This practice hinders rapid moisture evaporation, preserving the mushrooms’ quality.

Karunarathna’s enthusiasm goes beyond research. He also aspires to publish a comprehensive wild mushroom guidebook. With Yunnan’s locals often falling prey to toxic varieties, the Sri Lankan expert aims to reduce the number of poisoning incidents by educating the public about safe consumption.

Having integrated into Yunnan’s way of life, Karunarathna perceives the province’s cultural diversity as being as rich and intricate as its mushroom species. Yunnan’s wild mushroom culinary culture has also captivated him.

During mushroom harvesting season, Karunarathna and his students often unwind by dining at local wild mushroom restaurants near the university after a day of intensive work. Karunarathna’s personal favorite is wild mushroom hotpot.

“There’s no place on earth more suited for my fungal research than Yunnan,” Karunarathna said, acknowledging the province’s unrivaled richness in mushroom varieties.

Xinhua News Agency

Founded in 1931, Xinhua News Agency is one of the largest news organizations in the world, with over 10,000 employees across the globe. As the main source of news and information for China, Xinhua plays a key role in shaping the country's media landscape and communicating its perspectives to the world. The agency produces a wide range of content, including text news articles, photos, videos, and social media posts, in both Chinese and English, and its reports are widely used by media organizations around the world. Xinhua also operates several international bureaus, including in key capitals like Washington, D.C., Moscow, and London, to provide in-depth coverage of global events.

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