They looked like a group of butterflies resting on a branch. But as I approached, the purplish wings morphed into something gelatinous, fleshy, and etched with veins. I touched them. There was something human and macabre about them, like severed decaying ears. I had mistakenly thought that winter was not a great time for mushrooms, but the rain of the previous day had launched an abundance of them.
What I was seeing was a member of an entire subgroup of mushroom–the jelly fungus, or for you Latin speakers, Basidiomycota. These particular ones are an example of Auricularia auricula, otherwise known as the Jelly Ear fungus. Perhaps not so pretty to look at, they perform a vital public service by decomposing dead wood. When weather is dry, they shrivel and harden, like an old cork. But once the rain returns, they quickly reabsorb water and recover their shape, size and color, and can begin to produce spores. This ability to dry, rehydrate, and revive with a small amount of moisture is a remarkable adaptation, allowing these fungi to endure.
Not ten paces from the first jelly fungus, I came across another oddity. Creamy yellow layers folded in and out of themselves, like buttercream roses. This was also a jelly fungus, growing right amid the turkey tail mushrooms that had already colonized this decomposing log (Some speculate that this fungus actually feeds on the turkey tails).
This particular fungus is called witch’s butter. Legend originating in Eastern Europe holds that this mushroom was hung on doorposts by people to rid themselves of a witch’s curse. Piercing the fungus was said to banish the curse.
Like other jelly fungi, witch’s butter is very absorbent, and after a rain it can soak up so much water that it looks more like a slime. Once the water evaporates, the fungus shrinks back and the fruiting body remains dormant until the next rain.
Two sunny side up eggs? No, this is also witch’s butter fungus, but with more water absorbed than the one above. In case it is making you hungry, witch’s butter is edible, although allegedly tasteless. Its gelatinous consistency makes it a good soup thickener and if you are an adventurous eater, you can find these for sale at Asian groceries.
The next time it rains don’t miss the opportunity to seek out the jelly fungus among us, at Sheldrake or another woods near you.