Got Xylaria?

Most of us have found Xylarias at one time or another. And most of us have books that list two species: X. polymorpha (dead man’s fingers) and X. hypoxylon (candlesnuff fungus, a name that makes no sense to me). Over the past decade, X. longipes (for things that look like dead man’s fingers but are larger and especially fatter) has entered the oral tradition of mushroom clubs, but is still not in many books. But we still find many confusing things – in fact, we sometimes find three or four things that look like clearly different species on the same walk, which makes it kind of embarrassing to only have three names to choose from for the whole country.

X. hypoxylon resembling a hand. Photo by John Denk.

Although X. polymorpha is the one called “dead man’s fingers”, X. hypoxylon can also resemble a hand, as shown here.
Photo by John Denk

My introduction to the more extreme difficulties with Xylaria came from conversations with Maggie Rogers in 2004. She had a little thicket some kind of thin, black rods growing under her apple tree every year. She decided to have them identified and sent some samples to Jack Rogers (no relation), the esteemed xylariologist at Washington State University. He told her that they were immature, and could not be identified without mature spores. He suggested that she send more in a couple of weeks. She did, and he said that unfortunately she’d have to try again in another couple of weeks. After a bit of this, she finally managed to collect mature specimens and he was able to tell her that “they’re either something that was described from Siberia in 1901, or they’re new to science.”

This is a common story in mycology. The literature is scattered and incomplete, as are the type specimens used as references for species concepts. This is further complicated by the fact that older species descriptions (and by “older” I mean… older than 1970 or so!) are often not detailed enough to provide a determination by modern standards as to whether you have the same thing or not. This problem increases the farther back you go. In order to know how to treat Maggie’s Xylaria, Jack would have had to track down the original specimen collected in 1901, write a complete, modern description of it, and ascertain its relationship to Maggie’s Xylaria. If the original 1901 specimen could not be found, Jack would have had to travel to Siberia (or recruit someone over there) to look for a Xylaria fitting the 1901 description in its original environment. If this could be found, he would declare it the new type specimen for this species, write it up as above, and again ascertain its relationship with Maggie’s collection.

Needless to say, this holds things up a great deal.

Roo Vandegrift, giving a presentation to the Cascades Mycological Society

Roo Vandegrift, giving a presentation to the Cascades Mycological Society.
Photo by Angela Stevens.

Roo Vandegrift, a mycologist based at the University of Oregon, hopes to change things a bit. In pursuing his study of Xylarias in Ecuador, he has had to chase down quite a few leads about Xylarias in the wider world (much as Jack Rogers would have to check out that Siberian Xylaria in order to know what to call the one growing in Oregon). He is looking to return to Ecuador to take a closer look at its Xylarias, and to tease out additional species from the ones that are known.

Xylaria globosa, photo Danny Newman

Xylaria globosa, a tropical species that exudes red droplets. Photo by Danny Newman

He hopes to write them up in a book with detailed descriptions and excellent images, such as the photo of X. globosa shown here, by Danny Newman. If you contribute to the project, you can also get Xylaria-themed swag, such as the Xylaria bandanna shown here. You can read more about the project, and how you can support it, here. If you can, please do help out. If not, enjoy the photos and drawings, and the discussion of the challenges of Xylaria and of doing taxonomy nowadays. I guarantee you will learn something.

Xylaria bandana

Xylaria bandana, one of the swag items you can get for supporting Roo’s Xylaria taxonomy project.