October 10, 2022
Good evening, friends,
This week’s mushroom is the eastern cauliflower mushroom (Sparassis spathulata). I found this mushroom growing at the base of an oak up in Manitou on 9/20/2022. Peculiar in appearance, this is one of the first mushrooms I remember taking note of when I worked in Central Park. It was also growing at the base of an oak, and I borrowed the Gary Lincoff Audubon Field Guide to North American Mushrooms that sat above Eric’s desk to key out a mushroom for the first time (I skipped right to the pictures, this was a layup). It’s safe to say this is a mushroom with a little more meaning for me, so let’s delve a bit deeper.
This mushroom gets its common name from its resemblance to a cauliflower, although it looks more like a sea sponge or coral to me. The etymology of the genus Sparassis is derived from a greek verb meaning to tear, which refers to how the fronds of this mushroom appear split/torn. The species name spathulata comes from the latin spatha– which means “broad or flat tool” and is a reference to the aforementioned flat, branch-like fronds seen below. These structures are the mushroom’s means of spore dispersal and are known as flabellae.
In 2018, a rather thorough review was published regarding the known medicinal properties of Sparassis crispa, the Eurasian cauliflower mushroom (Reference 2). It used to be thought that our eastern North American species was S. crispa, and that’s how it is listed in the Audubon guide, but DNA sequencing revealed a separate species on this continent. It’s quite possible that our S. spathulata has a lot of the same beneficial polysaccharides and beta glucans as the cauliflower across the pond. The paper aggregated hundreds of different articles & studies that showed the mushroom possessed a wide-range of potential medicinal benefits including anti-tumor, antioxidant, and even anti-diabetic properties. Almost the entirety of the scientific research was conducted in Japan, South Korea, and China where the mushroom is a revered medicinal.
All Sparassis species are considered choice edibles, particularly when they’re young. I carved off a couple chunks but left the majority of the mushroom intact so it could continue to sporulate (it is, indeed, a word) since this is a fairly uncommon mushroom. I just checked and it’s still there today which speaks to those antibiotic compounds in the mushroom fighting off any fungi/bacteria that want to consume it.
S. spathulata is saprobic, growing from dead conifer and deciduous tree roots – specifically oaks and pines. It is also thought to be pathogenic which would mean it digests not just the dead, but the living roots of these trees as well. It is found in North America east of the Rockies and fruits summer through fall with sightings on iNaturalist peaking in August. The flabellae range in color from white to off-white/tan, and discolor as they age, but the tips of the fronds usually remain white.
Sparassis americana is a similar North American species, and is the only other Sparassis that grows in the northeast, but it grows exclusively with pine and has thinner, more noodle-like flabellae. Further muddying things, there appears to be a “morphological variant” of the eastern cauliflower mushroom that goes by Sparassis spathulata f. herbstii (formerly thought to be its own species Sparassis herbstii). This mushroom is genetically the same species as S. spathulata but has broader flabellae by 1-3 millimeters. I didn’t break out the meter stick for this one so we’re just going to stick with S. spathulata.
My friend and former roommate Phil, an avid fisherman, sent me a cool picture he took that highlights the intersection of our interests. A handsome flush of chicken of the woods (growing on birch which I don’t see often) spilling over onto the DEC fishing sign. Pretty sweet.
This week’s publication marks the two year anniversary of Mushroom Monday. Thank you all for reading,
1. Kuo, M. (2021, June). Sparassis spathulata. Retrieved from the MushroomExpert.Com Web site: http://www.mushroomexpert.com/sparassis_spathulata.html
2. Thi Nhu Ngoc L, Oh YK, Lee YJ, Lee YC. Effects of Sparassis crispa in Medical Therapeutics: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. Int J Mol Sci. 2018 May 16;19(5):1487. doi: 10.3390/ijms19051487. PMID: 29772715; PMCID: PMC5983641. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5983641/#:~:text=3%2C4%5D.-,S.,3%2C6%2C7%5D).