The Amateur Mycologist - Puntas Arenas Part 2: Cyttaria darwinii

in steemstem •  6 months ago

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.


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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.


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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


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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.

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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


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Gone are is the perfect white, as the mushroom's empty spore chambers shrivel and darken until...


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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.

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Photos are my own except for photo 3

[Photo 3 Source]Cyttaria darwinii photo, Chile, by xerofito from Chile, CC-SA-2.0, via wikimedia commons

Information Sources:

  • Giuliana Furci, Hongos De Chile, Volume I, Reimpresion corregida 2016

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OMG these are so wonderful. What an amazing post thank you sooooooo much!!!! I am in Costa Rica and enjoying the amazing variety of fungus down here too.

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Wow, that right there is quite the busy tree trunk! Awesome photo!

I'm glad you enjoyed the post so much. Do you write about fungi yourself?

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I don’t write about fungi no, I am no sort of expert but I am fascinated by them and love to photograph them along with all other beautiful aspects of nature. I shall continue to check out your posts though as you find the most amazing specimens - it feels akin to diving and exploring the great coral reefs only above ground. Thanks for your great work and contribution to the steemit community. Resteeming this post❤️🦋🌴🌈

Those mushrooms hence live in symbiosis with the tree they grow on, don't they? Interesting to learn. I had never heard about such a thing before :)

PS: amazing pictures (even the one that is not yours)!

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They are indeed living in a state of simbiosis. Parasitism and other special biological relationships between other life and fungi are not uncommon. Mushrooms with special, mutually beneficial relationships to specific trees have whats called a Mycorrhizal relationship with the trees. Usually though this will manifest as a relationship with the root system, where the mycelium interacts with the roots in an exchange of nutrition. This is really a mutualistic relationship.

Parasitic fungal species exist all over the place - think Cordyceps growing out of bugs or even ringworm, a fungal infection on human skin. When it comes to trees, generally mushrooms growing out of the wood are, in the short or long term, causing more damage than they are helping.

What's remarkable about Cyttaria is that they appear to cause no harm to the trees at all, with whole forests and old growth trees thriving while still exuding hundreds of the mushrooms each season.

Whether the relationship is mutualistic, commensalistic or parasitic isn't totally clear from what I can tell - all the resources I've read have not had a 100% clear answer - but the trees seem to be doing just fine and have been for many many many years, so it seems a fair guess that the relationship is either mutualistic or commensalistic, both of which are pretty weird for a mushroom that grows like Cyttaria does.

Of course, Cyttarias whole life cycle is hella wierd to begin with, recurrent growth out of galls... Just a really strange fungus.

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You read my mind. I was almost automatically associating parasitism with fungi and I was amazed to read about an exception. Thanks anyways for the clarifications :)

Hey dber, you probably get this all too often but I've had a hell of a time trying to classify these. I saw you've been studying mycology for quite a while and I would value your input. Do you have any ideas of what these might be off the top of your head? They were growing underneath the humus feeding on thin live roots of the pine trees. I found them in northern Utah in the mountains.
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I love trying to id things - and these are remarkably beautiful IMO. Looks like a brown or rust colpred spore print, and obviously the distinction ebtween the cap color and the gorgeous brown gills is very pronounced. Growing in a confiner forest.

I think I might see the hint of a veil remnant or a veil ring on the stipe of one of the mushrooms in the second picture, highlighted by the collection of spores there.

Did you see whether younger mushrooms in the cluster had their gills covered in a veil?

Other questions - did you notice any distinctive smells coming off the mushroom? And are they still fresh enough to cut one down the middle and take a photo to check for color changes?

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Oh and if you rememver or can test, did the mushroom bruise yellow or red/pinkish when the flesh was damaged? It could be if you tore the cap pr on the stipe if you cut the whole thing in half.

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Sorry one last question - what color were the gills on the youngest ones - were the gills a different color on the younger specimens?

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Ask away! And thank you I appreciate your taking the time to look. Interesting I never thought to check the stipe for the spore color. When we first brought them home we thought we noticed a slight light purple tinge that was so slight it was hard to say whether we imagined it. Maybe we stared at the sun for too long haha. They've been in the fridge for two days now and I can only see dark brown and tan colored bruising. I have some bruised caps here. Also there's a pic of one with the veil they're pretty low key. We pulled out a bunch all of the same species. The gills of the younger ones were slightly lighter, closer to tan than cinnamon. They smelled very "mushroomy" and fresh haha. Just like the ones at the store. Also none of the stems were hollow.

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Here is right after I cut it in half^^
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And here is about 1 hour later^^

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The caps had a bit of a sheen to them(below) and above is the same mushroom later that night after I washed it.
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The closest match I can find is the western blewit (clitocybe nuda)

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Ah what nice photography your pictures have been so extravagant that I've never seen such a picture that I have never seen the first time watching so much like it
Thanks for the nice post

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Thanks!

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Thanks!

Hi @dber!

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Awesome! Thank you very much!

Nice work. The pictures were well taken. Very informative indeed. Thanks for sharing!