5 Spooky Mushrooms to Haunt Your Dreams
Fungi are weird. That's why we like them! They are unlike anything else, and the more we learn about them, the more these bizarre organisms fascinate us and the more they seem completely alien.
They can provide medicines, create diseases, contain poison, and are vital to all life on earth. We know of many weird and wonderful species, yet it is estimated that over 90% of species are unknown to science!
October’s wet weather sees many creepy species springing up. From the eerily named Devil's Fingers with slime-covered tentacles that protrude from an egg to the Zombie Fungus that infects insects and takes over their minds and bodies.
There are so many fantastically mystical species, and as we are in the midst of Halloween, here are our favorite weird and wonderful mushrooms!
Devil's Fingers (Clathrus Archeri)
These freaky fungi both look and smell like something from hell. But you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, and Devil's Fingers are no exception. They are life-giving and integral to the health of many forests. Despite being native to Australia and New Zealand, you can now find this tentacled shroom all over the world. (1)
If you unknowingly came across this bizarre fungus, it would be easy to mistake it for some sort of animal, or perhaps an alien. Devil's fingers have between four and eight blood-red tentacle-like fingers that hatch from a gelatinous 'egg.' As the fingers begin to protrude, they produce a strong and unpleasant smell.
If you can stop yourself from vomiting at the horrific stench, devil’s fingers are technically edible, although they are very bitter in taste.
Benefits of Devil Finger Mushrooms
The stench of this mushroom attracts insects, who help them to reproduce by spreading their spores. Like many species of fungi, they are saprobic, meaning they use decomposing dead organic matter to create energy. They break down dead plant matter, which becomes fuel for new plant life and even trees. Thus, they are vital to the lifecycle of the forest, where there can be no life without death and without fungi utilizing that decay.
While we often think of things that feed off death as dark and morbid, it is essential to a healthy forest and all life on Earth.
Zombie Fungus (Ophiocordyceps Unilateralis)
They live among us: insects controlled by parasitic fungi that hijack their every move.
This weird mushroom sounds like it belongs in a horror movie. Native to the tropical rainforests of Brazil, Australia, and Thailand, as well as temperate forests in the US and Japan, this parasitic shroom wreaks havoc all over the globe! (2)
The Zombie Fungus has just one goal: self-propagation, and it does this by penetrating unknowing ants with its spores and slowly taking over its behavior. As the infection advances, the ant is compelled to leave the safety of its nest for a humid microclimate that is beneficial for the fungus growth. The ant then finds a place around 10 inches from the ground, bites into a leaf vein on the plant's north side, and awaits death.
Meanwhile, the fungus is busy feeding on the victim's innards. Several days after the ants' death, its shriveled corpse becomes a launchpad where the fungus spurts fruiting bodies through the ants head, thus infecting new ants.
While this fungus sounds a lot like a Zombie, it doesn't, in fact, take over the brain. Instead, it controls the ant through bioactive compounds that interfere with the ant’s nervous system and control hosts directly at the muscles. (3)
Benefits of Zombie Fungus
Although most species of cordyceps are parasitic, some species also have powerful medicinal properties. In Chinese medicine, cordyceps were considered remarkable and were only eaten by Chinese nobility. Traditionally they were used for many purposes, including respiratory ailments and low libido.
Modern research has shown how the polysaccharides (such as beta-glucans) in Cordyceps Militaris can have an anti-fatigue effect; improve exercise performance biomarkers, and enhance respiratory function. (4, 5, 6) Cordyceps militaris may also balance levels of inflammation and improve immune system markers. (7, 8)
Witches Butter (Tremella Mesenterica)
A frilly sign of a witch's curse, this yellow parasitic fungus might not be so great on toast but may have medicinal benefits. Its distribution is cosmopolitan, meaning it can be found all over the world!
Witches butter, perhaps named for its butter-like consistency and greasy surface when wet, as well as its district yellow or black color. But depending on where in the world you are, everywhere seems to have its own legends for the symbolism of this hypnotic fungus.
In Sweden, it was once believed to counteract witchcraft if thrown onto a fire! In other parts of Europe, it was believed that if it appeared on a gate or door of a house, it meant a witch had cast a spell on the family living there and that the spell could be counteracted by piercing the fungus with pins until it died.
Witches Butter is a parasitic fungus that feeds on other unrelated fungi, typically the family of the Peniophora genus. Peniophora genus fungi are crust-like funguses that are found on rotting branches and dead trees.
Benefits of Witches Butter Mushrooms
Although Witches Butter is rarely eaten because it is rather flavorless, it is edible, and in China, it has traditionally been used to add texture to soups.
It may also have medicinal benefits. While research is still in its infancy, it has been shown to have benefits, including antidiabetic, anti-inflammatory, immunostimulating, protecting against radiation, hypocholesterolemic, hepatoprotective, and antiallergic effects. (9)
Wood Ears (Auricularia Auricula-Judae)
In the deep, dark forest, nobody can hear you scream except for maybe our next mushroom that looks eerily like a decapitated human ear.
Located in temperate forests all over the globe, wood ear mushrooms grow predominantly on elder trees but can also be found on both dead and living spindle, ash, and beech trees.
Another common name for this peculiar fungus is Judas's ear. The elder tree is where Judas hung himself after betraying Jesus. The legend goes that the ears that emerge from the elder wood represent his tormented soul.
The wood ear is one of many species of mushroom that grow on decaying wood. They play an integral role in keeping a forest healthy by breaking down the tough outer layers of trees and providing food to a host of insects and microorganisms. They also break down materials and return the nutrients into the soil, keeping it healthy and growing new life.
Benefits of Wood Ear Mushrooms
In traditional Chinese Medicine, wood ear mushrooms have been used for hundreds of years. They are said to improve breathing, sore throats, and reduce fevers.
Studies have found that beta-glucans in wood ears may strengthen your immune system. (10) Other studies have shown them to have high antimicrobial activity. (11,12)
These edible mushrooms don't have much flavor but are good at absorbing the flavor of whatever it is cooked into. They are dark brown, have a chewy-crunchy texture, and can be added to soups, stir-frys, or salads.
Bleeding Tooth Mushroom (Hydnellum Peckii)
The head of this murderous mushroom oozes a blood-like substance, turns it over, and spikey teeth cover its base. Its appearance is sure to inspire nightmares. The Bleeding Tooth mushroom is found in forested mountain areas in Europe, North America, South Korea, and Iran, and despite its appearance, it is not actually dangerous.
While these bizarre mushrooms may look like something out of a horror movie, in characteristics, they are more at home in a romance. Bleeding tooth mushrooms live symbiotically with the trees from which they grow. The trees provide the mushrooms with carbon dioxide, and the fungus converts amino acids and soil minerals into forms that the tree can more easily harness for energy.
The blood-like substance that oozes from this mushroom is a sap made by a process called guttation. This happens to the young fungi when the surrounding soil is very wet and pushes water into the roots, creating enough pressure for the liquid to squeeze out.
However, this spectacle is rarely seen, as they are often embedded amongst plant stems and woody debris.
Benefits of Bleeding Tooth Mushrooms
Fittingly, the sap that the bleeding tooth fungus produces contains a compound called atromentin that can help stop blood clots from forming. (13)
They also contain a chemical called telephoric acid that scientists are currently researching as a potential treatment for cognitive decline related to aging. (13)
The bleeding tooth mushroom is also used as a natural fabric dye.
Depending on your perspective, this mushroom may look like teeth and blood, or to others, it reminds them of strawberries and cream. However, it may be difficult to stomach its bitter taste and is generally considered inedible.
More Weird Mushrooms
There are so many weird mushroom species that it was difficult to pick just five. If you're interested in all things weird and wonderful, then you might also want to read about lion’s mane, tremella, and Hawaii’s weird orgasm-inducing mushroom. (Yes, you read that right, and yes, it’s worth reading).
For more fungi goodness in your life, you can also subscribe to Malama Mushrooms on Facebook and Instagram. Here you can find all things new, fascinating, and downright weird in the world of mushrooms. Mahalo!