Home » Afield and Afloat » The Wonderfully Named Fungi

The Wonderfully Named Fungi

Enlarge

Amber-jelly-roll-2
The amber jelly roll is also known as willow brain because of its brain-like appearance and because the scientist who first described it found it growing on a willow tree in Germany. This specimen grew on a pin oak branch in Aurora. Photo by Gerry Steinauer.

Story and photos by Gerry Steinauer

Jelly fungi have great names. Some are delicious sounding: jelly drops, orange jelly, golden jelly cone, apricot jelly and black jelly roll. At the other extreme, some are graveyard spooky: willow brain, goblin ear, jelly tongue, Judas’ ear and, best of all, witches’ butter.

Growing in forests, the appearance of these gelatinous mushrooms ranges from blobs of jelly spilled onto a decaying log, to ears sprouting from a tree trunk, to globs of brain tissue smeared on a branch.

Whereas other jelly fungi are laden with interesting common names, the poor, neglected Dacryopinax elegans, as far as I can tell, has no common name. Collectively, members of the genus Dacryopinax are known as fan-shaped jelly fungi, and that name will have to suffice for this tough, yet gelatinous mushroom. Common in North America from the Great Plains eastward, the mushroom’s spores develop on the shiny, bald inside surface of the fan-shape, while the fuzzy outer surface is sterile. Photo by Gerry Steinauer.

Like other mushrooms, jelly fungi consist mainly of masses of extremely thin strands, called hyphae, that spread unseen through wood and function to digest and absorb nutrients. Their spore-producing fruiting bodies, the mushroom, are the gelatinous blobs.

Sweet osmanthus ear is so named because its shape resembles that of an East Asian Osmanthus flower petal. The mushroom is a common ingredient in the dish Buddha’s delight. Photo by Gerry Steinauer.

Jelly fungi are not all closely related, as the gelatinous form has evolved separately in several mushroom families. Whereas typical mushrooms have rigid cell walls, those of the jelly fungi are extremely flexible. When moisture is present, such as during rainy spells, this flexibility allows the cells to swell with water and expand and the mushroom to produce spores.

Ranging from disc to ear-shaped, wood ear grows on decaying hardwood logs and sticks. In various Old World cultures the mushroom has been graced with the names jelly ear, pig ear, goblin ear and Judas’ ear. The latter name stems from the legend that the mushroom was first discovered on the tree on which the biblical Judas Iscariot hanged himself.
Recent DNA analysis has shown that the North American form of wood ear is a distinct species from the identical-appearing European and Asian form. Although a unique species, it would be a disgrace if Americans renounced those wonderful Old World names long ago bestowed on this eerie mushroom.
All photos in the article were taken in oak woodlands at Indian Cave State Park in Richardson and Nemaha counties unless otherwise noted. Photo by Gerry Steinauer.

During dry conditions, the cells contract to extremely thin, firm sheets, and the jelly fungi shrink into a dormant state. They can swell and shrink several times during a growing season. Whereas typical mushrooms fruit only once a year, the jelly fungi’s unique cells allow them to swell and produce spores several times a year, a great adaptation in periodically dry habitats. 

About gerry steinauer