March 6, 2023
Good evening, friends,
Witch’s butter (Tremella mesenterica) was popping up all over the preserve this past week, demanding the Monday spotlight. The snow, and subsequent melt, created the perfect conditions for this mushroom. It was hard to miss the mushroom’s vibrant orange against the brown of the leaves and grey of the sky and I encountered it several times. Pair this popularity on the preserve with my coworker coincidentally showing me it in his social media feed and I’d say the universe was sending me signs (although with this ghastly common name it’d be a good one to save for halloween). I actually wrote briefly about T. mesenterica back in December of 2020, a couple months into this online odyssey, but I misidentified it at the time. Today, we’ll learn from my mistakes and delve deeper into the mushroom’s purported medicinal properties.
While the mushroom erupts right out of the branch in a wood-decomposing (saprotrophic) fashion, T. mesenterica is actually parasitic on the mycelium of the other fungus pictured. You may not have noticed, but those white spots on the branch are the fruiting bodies of a fungus in the genus Peniophora (perhaps Peniophora incarnata).
The mushroom which I wrote about in 2020 was actually the Golden Ear (Naematelia aurantia). I was able to figure this out because I was able to identify the host species. Look below to see the flower shaped N. Aurantia popping up amidst a gregarious fruiting of Stereum complicatum. If you see a branch with an orange glob look around to see what else is growing on it. That will help you determine the species of Tremella you found or whether you found Tremella at all.
A different fungus you might confuse for Tremella is the Orange Jelly (Dacrymyces chrysospermus, seen below). There are subtle difference in the fruiting body, but it might be easier to differentiate the two by their habitat. D. chrysospermus grows on conifer wood, typically in clusters, while Tremella grows on hardwood near the host species (although the host species isn’t always evident.
Below is a close-up of Dacrymyces chrysospermus. The fruiting body is a little more brain-like and ridged than the wavy Witch’s Butter.
There is a translucent Tremella species in China, the Snow ear (Tremella fuciformis), that is not only served in both soups and desserts, but is also sold in capsules for medicinal purposes. T. mesenterica and related Tremella species have a slew of purported medicinal properties. Tremella mushrooms have been used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat lung afflictions (asthma, bronchitis) and lower cholesterol. In human clinical trials, the mushroom demonstrated a wide range of functions from increasing white blood cell counts to treating hepatitis (Reference 2). More pharmacological research is warranted on the unique polysaccharides (a type of carbohydrate) responsible for these potent, promising medicinal properties.
The black spots above are actually little insects, I believe. That didn’t stop me from popping that little sucker in my mouth – who isn’t looking for a few more white blood cells. One of the few mushrooms you can eat raw (don’t eat mushrooms unless you’re positive of the ID yada yada). One last cool feature is that this mushroom, like other jelly fungi, can shrivel up to a fraction of its fully saturated size. You’re going to find this mushroom during or soon after rain/snow because after a day or so it quickly dehydrates to the point where you’d hardly ever notice it. It can wait until the next precipitation event to rehydrate and continue to release spores (it’s still a basidiomycete even though it may look like an ascomycete). Check out the dehydrated mushroom below through a hand lens – I’m being quite literal when I say it’s the size of a pinhead.
Thanks for reading. I think this will be the last missive from mailchimp. Excited to see where we land next week. Also there’s a full moon tomorrow (at 7:40 AM, for what it’s worth). It’s the last full moon before the spring equinox. Enjoy,
1) Kuo, M. (2018, October). Tremella mesenterica. Retrieved from the MushroomExpert.Com Web site: http://www.mushroomexpert.com/tremella_mesenterica.html
2) Robert Dale Rogers. Medicinal Mushrooms: The Human Clinical Trials. Prairie Deva Press, 2020, pp. 95–98.
6) Lachter J, Yampolsky Y, Gafni-Schieber R, Wasser SP. Yellow brain culinary-medicinal mushroom, Tremella mesenterica Ritz.:Fr. (higher Basidiomycetes), is subjectively but not objectively effective for eradication of Helicobacter pylori: a prospective controlled trial. Int J Med Mushrooms. 2012;14(1):55-63. doi: 10.1615/intjmedmushr.v14.i1.60. PMID: 22339708. Online: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22339708/