The name amakhowe translates from the Zulu language as “wild mushroom.” In some areas of South Africa, it is also known as i’kowe. This mushroom (Termitomyces umkowaani) is a large, finely fleshed beefsteak mushroom with a cap that can grow up to 30 cm in diameter. They have a sweet and mildly nutty flavor. This mushroom species belongs to a variety of mushrooms that depend on the activity of termites for their “cultivation,” and grow in a symbiotic relationship with the insects inside their nests. The termites transplant the amakhowe spores to their nests, where the fungi break down wood and dried grass, decomposing materials like cellulose and lignin, which the insects cannot digest, and form a biomass that is rich in nitrogen and can be consumed by the termites. When it rains in the spring, within 24 hours the fungi produce the aboveground portion of the mushrooms that is consumed by humans.
In South Africa, amakhowe grows wild mainly in subtropical forest areas, predominantly northern KwaZulu-Natal, but can be found far north as Mpumalanga and as far south as the Transkei. Because it is harvested from the wild by individuals, and not cultivated by humans, the amount collected each year varies based on the weather. In rainy summers, there are many more mushrooms to harvest than in years with dry summers. Amakhowe are mainly collected for personal or family use, or by some small local restaurants, but can also be found sold at informal traders’ markets. Some South Africans consider the mushrooms as a local version of truffles found elsewhere in the world. They are used in a number of local dishes, served with meat and vegetable stews cooked over an open fire.
With an increase in urbanization in the areas where these mushrooms grow, their natural habitat is shrinking, and the amakhowe are becoming increasingly rare. Despite attempts by commercial growers, these mushrooms can only grow in the context of a symbiotic relationship with terminates, and cannot be cultivated at an economically viable scale. They are heavily dependent on rains to produce the fruiting part of the fungi used by humans.