Observation 102923: Boletus L.

When: 2008-09-01

Collection location: Yunnan Province, China [Click for map]

Who: Danny Newman (myxomop)

No specimen available

This is a place-holder observation for the famed Xiao Ren Ren-producing boletes of Yunnanese China, featured in the following article:

Arora, David. “Xiao Ren Ren: The “Little People” of Yunnan.” Economic Botany 62.3 (2008): 540-544. PDF (http://davidarora.com/uploads/xiao_ren_ren.pdf)

whose identity is still uncertain. The article offers the following on the mushroom’s (or group of mushrooms’) taxonomy and toxicology:

The people of Yunnan refer to many blue-staining boletes (Fig. 1) as jian shou qing (“look blue in the hand”) because they tend to be very colorful (red, yellow, etc.) but bruise blue, blue-green, or blue-black when handled. This oxidation process, it should be noted, is typical of many boletes and does not indicate the presence of the psychoactive compound psilocin as it does for the bluing species of Psilocybe. Blue-staining boletes are much more highly valued as food by Yunnan people than are the white-fleshed, nonbluing boletes (porcini) favored in the West; the above-mentioned Ms. Liu, in fact, describes jian shou qing as “the most delicious mushrooms here [if] deeply cooked.” As already stated, informants say that jian shou qing should be fried for 10–20 minutes, and they often emphasize that the mushrooms should be constantly stirred while frying to ensure that all the pieces are fully cooked.

But distinguishing between the many blue-staining bolete species can be difficult even for experts, and the name jian shou qing is applied differently by different people in Yunnan along with a host of other names for blue-staining boletes, e.g., cong jun. Furthermore, Yunnan people tend to assign the xiao ren ren quality to many or all blue-staining boletes just as people in the United States frequently attribute to all blue-staining boletes the tendency of several species to cause nausea and vomiting if undercooked. Some Yunnan people also say that nausea and vomiting may result from eating undercooked jian shou qing, but it is not clear how these symptoms are linked to the species that elicit visions of xiao ren ren. As already noted, only one of those who actually described seeing xiao ren ren to this author specifically reported gastrointestinal distress.

Further complicating the identification process is the fact that the various jian shou qing do not necessarily occur discretely. They often grow together in the woods, are often sold together in the markets, and are often cooked together in the kitchen. Because picking, purchasing and consuming wild mushrooms are routine activities in Yunnan, and nowhere near as unusual as seeing xiao ren ren, there is also a frustrating but understandable tendency on the part of informants not to remember, or not to have noticed, critical identifying features of the mushrooms they ate. Miss Oh, Zhao Li and the professor agreed that the culprits were boletes that stained blue or blue-green when bruised or cut. They also seemed to agree, though with considerable less certainty, that there was some reddish color somewhere on the mushrooms they ate. The two women seemed to think that the pore surface was yellow (but again, were not certain); the professor did not see the mushrooms until after they were cooked but opined, with more certainty than the women, that the pore surface was red. None of the three could say whether the stalk was reticulate (covered with a netting), or smooth.

As a result of this kind of uncertainty, I have been unable to precisely identify the species responsible for provoking visions of xiao ren ren beyond the fact that they are blue-staining boletes. According to Heim (1965, 1972), traces of indolic substances were found in (presumably dried specimens of) B. manicus by the noted chemist Albert Hofmann, but were never identified. It is possible, then, that related Boletus species in Yunnan cause people to see xiao ren ren. Another genus of boletes, Phlebopus, is also a possible culprit. At least two species of Phlebopus are commonly marketed in Yunnan and southeast Asia, and in Thailand it is sometimes said that one should cook them well to avoid becoming mao (drunk or dizzy).

Arora states (as of late 2011) that he knows of no one in China working to track down the identity of these fungi or the toxins responsible for their curious effects. He suspects that most or all of the spp. are already among the collections of Chinese herbaria.

Species Lists


Copyright © 2008 David Arora
Fig. 1. Zhu Gui Fen of Lu Feng, Yunnan, spends her summers picking, buying and selling wild mushrooms. She has seen the xiao ren ren. Here she is holding a handful of blue-staining jian shou qing of uncertain identity.

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Created: 2012-07-26 01:33:52 MST (-0700)
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