When is wool not really wool? When it's Taranaki wool, of course! Also known as Jew's ear, mouse ear and various other poetic names, wood ear fungus was a lifesaver for Taranaki farmers struggling to get their dairy farms to make a profit. Wood ear fungus (Auricularia cornea), grows on dead and decaying trees, and was very common on felled logs around the newly cleared pastures in Taranaki in the late 19th Century.
Chew Chong (Chau Tseung) arrived in Taranaki in 1870, and recognised this fungus as a prized gourmet and medicinal food in his homeland of China. He began purchasing the fungus off farmers and exporting it. The fungus was collected by both Māori and Pākehā, and was a blessing for struggling farmers as it provided them with a much needed source of income. Fungus exports to China slowed in the 20th Century and eventually ceased by 1960, when Taiwanese growers were able to supply large quantities grown on sawdust as an alternative. The fungus can still be found growing wild in Taranaki today.
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