November 14, 2022
Good evening, friends,
This week’s mushroom is the shaggy mane (Coprinus comatus). I’ve seen this mushroom in Central Park and I just saw it recently up in Manitou on 10/19/2022. The distinct looks and wide range of this mushroom have spawned plenty of intrigue and research. Although this mushroom is fairly common, there are plenty of not-so-common features that make it stand out more than its gothic white hairdo already does. Let’s dive in.
The shaggy mane is known as an “inky cap” because of it’s ability to deliquesce (to dissolve into a black liquid mass of spores). Although you may expect this mushroom’s cap to unfurl into more of an umbrella shape, like many gilled mushrooms, the above picture depicts as wide as it gets. As the black spores are released from the gills at the margin (the outermost edge of the cap), that section of the gills then begins to melt away. This creates a chain reaction where the gills further up the cap are now exposed to air so they release their spores and subsequently melt away. You can see this delicate dance in the hypnotic time-lapse captured here.
The shaggy mane is edible. The mushroom will continue to deliquesce after you harvest it so you’ll be left with a gooey spore soup if you don’t eat it within the day. You can extend the shelf-life of these mushrooms for a day or two by placing them in water directly after harvest. If you boil/sauté them this will halt the deliquescence and allow them to keep even longer. Further, you can also freeze or dehydrate young specimens before the cap begins to deliquesce. Even though it’s a race against the clock, there are plenty of different ways to preserve these mushrooms so you can indulge in the bevy of purported health benefits.
A comprehensive review published in 2020 detailed the potential benefits and detriments to eating this mushroom (Reference 2). Starting with the wide range of positives; these mushrooms displayed antibiotic, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antiviral, anticancer, and antiestablishment properties (not really on the last one, just checking to see if you’re paying attention). The review also suggests it could potentially be an Alzheimer’s inhibitor, glucose regulator, and help fight obesity – not joking, scroll the review. What can’t this mushroom do?
The negatives, which I’ll quickly sweep under the rug, are that the mushroom (when eaten) can cause skin reactions in people with dermatitis, and it can also sequester heavy metals from polluted areas. The latter is potentially helpful for bioremediation but definitely not helpful for dinner. I didn’t eat this specimen because it was the only one I saw but I did leave it somewhere I could check on it again. Below is the mushroom a day and a half after I found it.
In latin, coma means hair and the species name Comatus refers to the mushroom’s hairy cap. Another common name for this mushroom is the lawyer’s wig – a nod to the resemblance of this mushroom and the wigs worn by lawyers in colonial times. The genus name Coprinus means “living on dung” and is a hint to the dietary preferences of some of the species in this genus. Interestingly, almost all mushrooms that deliquesce were originally in the genus Coprinus, but DNA sequencing has reshuffled them into genera (the plural of genus, I had to google it) like Coprinopsis and Coprinellus.
Typically, C. comatus is saprobic and decomposes organic material in the soil. It has a penchant for disturbed areas and I found this one on the border of a gravel driveway. However, in a similar fashion to blewits (Clitocybe nuda) and oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus sp.), the mycelium of the fungus can hunt nematodes (small worms) in the soil. The mushrooms will grow as solitary specimens or in groups and appear summer through fall around the globe. The iNaturalist distribution chart shows the extreme extent of its range – spanning from the Middle of Alaska to the equator and all the way down to New Zealand. It should be noted there are several genetically distinct but physically identical subspecies that comprise C. comatus and are likely geographically specific.
Not only can this mushroom be a dinner for humans, but it can also be a meal for other fungi. Psathyrella epimyces, one of the Fungal Diversity Survey’s (FunDiS) 20 rare fungi of the northeast, is parasitic on shaggy mane mushrooms. The nematode hunter is now the hunted. A photo taken by the iNaturalist user jonathan_mack up in Ottawa shows how several Psathyrella mushrooms grow right out of the stunted shaggy manes. What a neat planet we live on.
What a fun mushroom to learn and write about – hope you think so too,
1. Kuo, M. (2008, February). Coprinus comatus: The shaggy mane. Retrieved from the MushroomExpert.Com Web site: http://www.mushroomexpert.com/coprinus_comatus.html
2. Nowakowski P, Naliwajko SK, Markiewicz-Żukowska R, Borawska MH, Socha K. The two faces of Coprinus comatus-Functional properties and potential hazards. Phytother Res. 2020 Nov;34(11):2932-2944. doi: 10.1002/ptr.6741. Epub 2020 May 27. PMID: 32462723; PMCID: PMC7754439. Online: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7754439/