Scientific Name: Tuber spp.
Description: Truffles are not plants or animals—they’re underground mushrooms in the fungi kingdom. The part of the truffle that most people see looks like a small, lumpy potato. This is the part of the fungus that creates spores for reproduction, just like a typical aboveground mushroom. Truffles also send out an extensive system of root-like filaments called hyphae that interact with plants.
Truffles and trees face a dilemma. The hyphae of truffles are exceptional absorbers of water and nutrients, but they can’t photosynthesize sugar for food. Trees, on the other hand, have lots of photosynthesizing leaves that allow them to create their own food, but they’re not always the best at soaking up water and nutrients. Somewhere in the evolutionary scheme of things, truffles and trees began to take advantage of each other’s strengths. The hyphae of truffles latched onto the roots of trees to create symbiotic relationships called mycorrhizae. The truffle provides the tree with extra water and nutrient absorption, and the tree gives the truffle sugar in return.
Many different types of fungi form these relationships with trees, but truffles are special for another reason. People love to eat them! There are hundreds of truffle species, but the genus Tuber contains most of the gourmet ones. Truffles aren’t just enjoyed by humans, but by animals as well. Since they’re underground, truffles can’t distribute their spores on air currents like most mushrooms. They rely on animals digging them up and eating them to transfer their spores to new places. Truffles disclose their location to hungry mammals with a scent that requires a strong nose to detect. Avid collectors take advantage of this trait and use dogs and pigs to forage for them. Truffles are also farmed on plantations called truffières, but growing them is a tricky process! The most highly-prized truffles in the U.S. are the Oregon white, brown, and black truffles and the pecan truffle in the south.
Fun Fact: Truffles are the most expensive food in the world. The largest, rarest truffles sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars!
The New York Botanical Garden
North American Truffling Society
University of Kentucky College of Agriculture