These posts are not for foraging. They are intended for entertainment and intellectual satisfaction only. These posts are not a field guide nor comprehensive in any way - their accuracy is not assured in any way. Do not eat wild mushrooms unless you are a professional, have substantial professional assistance or have a wealth of personal experience with a specific species. Do not make any foraging decisions based on these posts. To do so could be dangerous or life threatening.
Behold Cyttaria darwinii, one of several bizarre, unique mushrooms which grow only in Chile.
One of the big reasons I first signed up for the trip to Chile was to meet Gary Lincoff, the famed mycologist, and spend a couple of weeks foraying the far reaches of the world with him.
Gary was incredibly active in NYC and the leader of the New York Mycological Society of which I am a member. Over the last few years I have had countless opportunities to foray with Gary or go to meetings where Gary would be, and I never did. I was always too nervous to put myself out there, preferring to work alone and limit myself to online interactions, allowing social anxiety to get in the way of meeting an incredible person.
Tragically, Gary passed away several weeks before we left for Chile. I only had limited online contact with Gary, and it pains me never to have met him in person, especially knowing how easy it would have been to rectify that.
The vibrant memory of Gary was a bright presence throughout the course trip, manifested in the affectionate rememberings of my fellow travelers. However, in the lead up to the trip I became online friends with Gary and he was consistently posting sometimes obscure articles and essays about the region we were preparing to visit.
One such document was a very old article written about Cyttaria mushrooms nearly century ago, where the strange growth pattern and nature of the Cyttaria mushrooms was expounded upon in some detail.
In the lead up to the trip I read this old research paper with rapt attention.
Here was a genus of fungus known nowhere else in the world, with a look and growth pattern quite unlike any other fungus anywhere. The darwinii species carries Darwin's namesake and he encountered them hundeds of years ago during his travels in South America and Chile.
Unfortunately we figured our chances of encountering the species was very low, as we were coming after their growing season, in the early fall.
Boy were we wrong
Not only did we see Cyttaria mushrooms, we saw them all over the place.
Here you have a nice close up of the mushrooms growing fresh out of the gall-like structure of a nothofagus tree. Seeing this for the first time is just absolutely bizarre.
To provide some context, usually if you see a mushroom growing out of a piece of wood, it means the wood is dead. Alternatively, if you see mushrooma growing out of a tree it meana the tree is sick or dying.
But neither is the case with the Cyttaria mushrooms. These smooth puffball like mushrooms do not grow just anywhere on the tree but only sprout from specific locations, gall-like structurs in the wood like the one below. Moreover, there is no indication that the mushrooms cause any adverse sideeffects to the trees whatsoever. To the contrary, the nothofagus forests have been healthily coexisting with the fungi for as long as anyone can remember.
This Nothofagus branch has a gall present on it.
In general, a gall is a kind of scar tissue or tumor like area of a tree or other plant that grows around an invading organism or injury. Galls can be harmless or harmful depending on the plant or tree or biological invader.
In the case of the Nothofagus forests however, the galls seem to be everywhere, and from each of them, in the summer, spring forth countless Cyttarias, darwinii being one of the edible species, at first perfect, creamy white and smooth and later transforming as the spores mature and get ready to be expelled.
Take a look at the transformation below.
This is the only picture I didn't take, because all the Cyttaria we saw were either young and white or totally spent and on the ground.
This photo illustrates the middle portion of the mushrooms development, where those small pockets begin to be outlined. Within each pocket is the spore material, and as it matures it will eventually be expelled from the pockets to propogate more Cytarria.
Once the mushroom is spent, it falls to the ground and looks like this
Gone are is the perfect white, as the mushroom's empty spore chambers shrivel and darken until...
They are left as black husks of their former selves.
The moment we stepped foot in a nothofagus forest in Puntas Arenas we were absolutely surrounded by Cyttaria husks. They were everywhere in extraordinary numbers, more than you can possibly imagine, having fallen from the forest canopy and the innumerable galls absolutely covering every single tree.
We were sometimes walking through layers of these things, kicking them around like so many small pine cones. Soon enough the amazement turned to disinterest as we realized they were simply everywhere.
But, finding them alive on the tree was a real unexpected treat and allowed me to do that thing I never ever recommend doing - eat a little!
Now, why have I made a special exception for this mushroom? Because it appears to be totally safe and positively unmistakable. You will either end up with this species or one of its cousins, and the inedible one will make itself clear with its thick mucus like consistency.
Plus, you need to be in Chile in a Nothofagus forest in order to find a Cytarria mushroom in the first place, and if you are in southern Chile, then you will know it when you see it.
How did it taste? Well the locals apparently slice up fresh ones and season them like a salad with oil and vinegar. Apparently it is one of the very few mushrooms actually safe to eat raw, and also one of the only mushrooms with actual sugar content, which allowed indigenous peoples to brew an alcoholic beverage from it.
Personally, I just took a few chewy bites and found the taste non existant. It was like eating a hard piece of mochi, but with a bit of a crunch. Apparently Cyttaria is all in the texture, but I imagine it would soak up flavors quite well. Only I've been told you don't want to cook it - strange advice for a fungus - because apprently it takes on that poor mucus consistency when heat is applied.
Overall, I was really enamored and amazed by the species.
It wasn't just their uniqueness and the fact that I might very well never see a fresh one again in person, it was also the idea of them that I found so compelling. The whole notion of the forest coming alive and positively inundating you with a bizarre, edible substance, growing right off the side of trees, like a gift from the Earth.
As far as I know, there's nothing else quite like them anywhere else on the planet, and seeing them in person was an unexpected treat.
Photos are my own except for photo 3
- Giuliana Furci, Hongos De Chile, Volume I, Reimpresion corregida 2016