Taranaki wool

Kurlansky (2000) in his The Basque history of the world said that the Basque have a saying ‘Izena duen guzia omen da’ – that which has a name exists. This need for a name echoed around the world, even in South Pacific, and as Bail (1998) wrote in his novel Eucalyptus:

We are not comfortable if a thing we have seen isn’t attached to a name. An object can hardly be said to exist until it has a name, even an approximate name.

But names are tricky things as they can be misapplied and are subject to change as societies change. In New Zealand, we have a wood decay fungus that is known as ‘Taranaki wool’. Scientifically this fungus was originally thought to be the European species Auricularia auricula-judae, and then identified as Auricularia polytricha. However, since 1988 we have accepted that it is Auricularia cornea. To the naked eye, these species all looked the same and it is only under the microscope that they can be teased apart.

Auricularia cornea (photo Don Horne)

The most common English language name used in New Zealand, Jew’s ear, comes straight from Europe. This name is considered to be an adaptation of Judas’ or Judas ear as it is said to have fruited on the dead wood of the elder tree from which Judas Iscariot hanged himself following his betrayal of Jesus Christ. In recent year political correctness has seen a shift to jelly ear, wood ear and even Chinese ear. Interestingly Jew’s ear is seen as anti-Semitic or racist while Chinese ear is not.

Luckily in New Zealand, we have an alternative name – Taranaki wool. Towards the end of the nineteenth century an enterprising merchant and businessman, Chew Chong (Winder 2003), who ran his business (Ng 2010) from New Plymouth in the province of Taranaki. Chew Chong had seen the abundant fruiting of Auricularia cornea on farms in Taranaki and established a significant export trade in dried mushrooms, 1888 tonnes between 1872 and 1883 (Buchanan and Barnes 2002), to China. An excellent account of this business was written by Brightwell (1993).

Taranaki Herald, 9 September 1880, p. 2

However, the trade was unsustainable because it was a by-product of land clearance for farming. Most New Zealand farmland was produced through the burning of the temperate rainforest that clothed the land. Auricularia cornea boomed as it decayed the large quantities of wood that remained after the fires and rotted in the newly established pastures.

The start of a 30,000 acre fire, lit to clear the land of bush, Pukatora Station, East Coast, ca 1900. (photo Frederick Ashby Hargreaves, National Library Reference Number: 1/2-032845-F)

Here is a description of bush burning from the Waikato in 1847 by L. Johnson (FRFANZ):

We have seen immense volumes of smoke issuing all day from the forest around Matamata and when within 2 miles of it, we distinctly saw its northern extremity on fire, which extending to the plain had ignited the dry grass and fern and even reached our track…. hundreds of trees were in flames from their roots to their topmost branches.

Two men sowing seeds amongst tree stumps (photo Northwood Brothers, National Library Reference Number: 1/1-006250-G)

Farm of William A Coombridge, Waiteika Road, Te Kiri, Opunake, Taranaki (photo James McAllister, National Library Reference Number: 1/2-024176-G)

A full history of fire as a tool for land clearance, changing attitude to conservation and the legislation to address the changes can be found at FRFANZ.

Auricularia cornea is a wood decay fungus usually appearing within 18 months of the death of the tree or branch. It rots the newest or sapwood and is succeeded by those decay fungi that rot the heart wood. The fruitbodies are rubbery and robust and tend to dry out in dry weather than revive when it rains to produce and shed more spores.  For more photos of this fungus from Taranaki see TERRAIN (2011).

Auricularia cornea (photo Philip Bendle, TERRAIN)


Bail M 1998. Eucalyptus. Text Publishing Co., Melbourne.

Brightwell S 1993. Feasting on fungi. New Zealand Geographic 18 (June): 34-58.

Buchanan PK, Barnes J 2002. The mushroom industry in New Zealand. International Society for Mushroom Science.

FRFANZ. Rural fire history 1840-1919. Forest and Rural Fire Association of New Zealand

Kurlansky M 2000. The Basque history of the World. Vintage, Random House, London.

Ng J 2010. Chew Chong – biography. Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand.

TERRAIN 2011. Wood-ear fungi. T.E.R.R.A.I.N – Taranaki Educational Resource: Research, Analysis and Information Network.

Winder V 2003. Chew Chong plays leading role in dairy industry. Puke Ariki, New Plymouth


The powerlifters of the fungal world

I was recently sent the two photos below which appeared in a Landcare Research staff newsletter. They were taken in central Christchurch near the Arts Centre which was damaged in last years earthquake. The photos show Coprinopsis atramentaria (the inkcap) lifting and erupting through the asphalt. In this case, the inkcap is a wood decay fungus and will be growing on either dead roots of a tree or some other buried wood.

Coprinopsis atramentaria (Ruud Kleinpaste at prompting of Fletcher Building)

It is not just wood decay fungi that can break up paving but also mycorrhizal fungi, that is those associated with tree roots. Often the roots have been paved over so that when the fungal fruit bodies attempt to push to the surface they must break through the paving. I first encountered mycorrhizal fungi doing this when I lived in Dunedin and the following article appeared in the Otago Daily Times.

Otago Daily Times 6 April 1989

The pavement lifter was the scarlet flycap [Amanita muscaria] and I have not seen any other records of this species lifting pavement. The annoying thing for residents and the city council was that this pavement had only recently been laid.

In the book Why don’t penguins’ feet freeze? the question was asked:

Near where I live there are toadstools growing through the pavement, the surface of which they have displaced in fairly large chunks. What mechanism allows toadstools – essentially very soft and squashy items – to push through two inches of asphalt? John Franklin, London, UK

The rapid growth of mushrooms is well known, how they can come up overnight, but how they exert such force is not so obvious. The hollow stalk of the mushroom is made up of vertically arranged hyphae that grow at their tips, much like those balloon used to make balloon animals. The wall of a hypha is composed of fibres of chitin that are arranged helically and limits the ability of the hypha to expand in width. All the pressure of growth is through elongation and growth at the tip (Isaac 1999). It is this concerted pressure applied by each expanding hypha that can create the pressure to lift the pavement.

This ability was first investigated experimentally in the 1920s by the mycologist A.H.R. Buller (Estey 1986). Using simple equipment, illustrated by Buller (1931) below, he was able to show that Coprinus sterquilinus can lift a weight over 200g, many times its own weight (Webster 1980).

Buller’s apparatus

Recent studies, by Money and Ravishankar (2005), using much more sophisticated equipment compared the pressure exerted by individual hypha of Coprinopsis cinerea pushing through its food source and found it to be the same as those hyphae forming the elongating stipe of the fruitbody. This force was approximately 0.5 atmospheres and is close to the 2/3 of an atmosphere calculated by Buller.


Buller AHR 1931. Researchs on fungi. Volume 4. London, Longman, Green and Co.

Estey RH 1986. A.H.R. Buller: pioneer leader in plant pathology. Annual Review of Phytopathology 24: 17-25.

Isaac S 1999. Mycology answers. Mycologist 13: 137-138.

Money NP, Ravishanka JP 2005. Biomechanics of stipe elongation in the basidiomycete Coprinopsis cinerea. Mycological Research 109: 627-634.

O’Hare M 2006. Why don’t penguins’ feet freeze? New Scientist, Profile Books.

Webster J 1980. Introduction to fungi. 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press.

Kaipupu Point, Queen’s birthday weekend

Looking from Kaipupu Point track across Picton Harbour (photo Geoff Ridley)

This is the second blog and contribution to a fungal checklist for this new mainland island reserve, 3 June 2012. The first contribution is here.

The List:

Gymnopilus junonius [giant flamecap]: This was growing amongst grass on the track that follows the protective fence that prevents pest mammals entering the reserve. Although appearing to be growing on soil this is a wood decay fungus and is probably growing on decaying wood that was buried when the track was formed. This is not a native fungus and will probably disappear from the reserve as the forest regenerates.

Gymnopilus junonius (photo Geoff Ridley)

Gymnopilus junonius showing ring on stipe (photo Geoff Ridley)

Scleroderma verrucosum [warted puffball]: These puffballs were growing on a steep cutting below planted manuka (Leptopsermum scoparium) and gorse (Ulex europeus). It is probably a mycorrhizal partner of the manuka. These are almost mature fruitbodies with the flesh having been converted to a purple black spore mass which will become dry and powdery when fully mature. [Note 16.07.2016: This is more likely to be Scleroderma radicans see the discussion in this later blog.]

Scleroderma verrucosum on bank (photo Geoff Ridley)

Scleroderma verrucosum in section showing purple black spore mass (photo Geoff Ridley)

Tylopilus formosus [velvet bolete]: This species was in list 1 but that the fruitbody was distorted by growing under a root. This is a much more typical specimen with its purplish-black velvety cap and pinkish pores.

Tylopilus formosus amongst leaf litter under beech trees (photo Geoff Ridley)

Tylopilus formosus with white flesh and pinkish pores (photo Geoff Ridley)

Clavaria corallinorosacea [rose coral]: Identify coral fungi is difficult at the best of times but without a microscope almost impossible. Using Petersen (1988) I got it down two one of two species either Clavaria corallinorosacea or Clavaria phoenicea var. persicina, the first with ellipsoid spores and the latter with globose spores. I have gone with Clavaria corallinorosacea but happy to be corrected.

Clavaria corallinorosacea (photo Geoff Ridley)

Clavaria corallinorosacea (photo Geoff Ridley)

Cortinarius sp [webcap]: This appears to be similar to the Cortinarius species included in list 1, just much smaller. Note the strong purple colouring in the upper stipe and the dusting of brown spore.

Cortinarius sp. showing purple colouring in the upper stipe and gills (photo Geoff Ridley)

Cortinarius sp. with its very non-descript cap (Geoff Ridley)

Cortinarius sp. in cross section showing purple colouring (Geoff Ridley)

Crinipellis filiformis [leaf horsehair]: Most know the more common Crinipellis procera (tall horsehair) with its long tough stipe, up to 100-120 mm, and growing from twigs. Crinipellis filiformis differs in being less common, shorter, less tough, and growing on leaves rather than twigs.

Crinipellis filiformis (photo Geoff Ridley)

Geoglossum australe [an earth-tongue]: These are not basidomycetes but ascomycetes so belong with the cup fungi. Michael Kuo (Mushroom.Expert.com) says of Geoglossum: “a nightmare to identify–but if you are a microscope geek, they often reward you with fascinating and funky microscopic features”. What more can I say?

Geoglossum australe (photo Geoff Ridley)

Geoglossum australe (photo Geoff Ridley)

Gliophorus chromolimoneus [chrome waxgills]: There are a couple of yellow waxgills and this one, typical of the genus Gliophorus, has a slime-coated cap and stipe.

Gliophorus chromolimoneus (photo Geoff Ridley)

Gliophorus chromolimoneus showing slime on cap and stipe (photo Geoff Ridley)

Gliophorus chromolimoneus (photo Geoff Ridley)

Humidicutis pura [white waxgill]: This specimen shows the typical radial splitting of the cap as it ages that is a good character to set Humidicutus apart from the other waxgill genera (see Gliophorus above).

Humidicutis pura with typical radial splitting of the cap (photo Geoff Ridley)

Humidicutis pura (photo Geoff Ridley)

Hygrocybe sp. [black’n’yellow waxgill]: This is close to Hygrocybe (Bertrandia) astatogala which has red-orange colouring in the gills and stem underneath the blackening. It may well be that black’n’yellow waxgill is only a colour variant of Hygrocybe astatogala

Hygrocybe sp. – the fruitbodies blacken with age – compare the old fruitbody on the left with the younger on the right (photo Geoff Ridley)

Hygrocybe sp. – note the yellowcolouring  in the stipe (photo Geoff Ridley)

Laccaria sp. [a deceiver]: This little Laccaria does not match any of the described species for New Zealand. Typically deceivers have thickish and widely spaced gills. They can also have purplish colouration in the gills or more generally – see next species.

Laccaria sp. (photo Geoff Ridley)

Laccaria sp. (photo Geoff Ridley)

Laccaria fraterna [two-pronged deceiver]: Recognised by its cinnamon coloured cap and pinkish to purplish gills. In this species, the basidium produces two spores, hence the two-pronged, rather than the usual four spores.

Laccaria fraterna (photo Geoff Ridley)

Laccaria fraterna (photo Geoff Ridley)

Mycena ura [crimson helmet]: The red is washed out in this photo and ‘ura‘ revers to the red colour of pohutukawa (Meterosideros excelsa) flowers. These mushrooms were under 10 cm in diameter. The stem bleeds a red sap when cut.

Mycena ura (photo Geoff Ridley)

Lycoperdum compactum [wood puffball]: This is the only wood decay puffball and is usually found growing on well-decayed wood. In this case, I could push my finger through the wood. This specimen was immature and when cut in half the flesh was solid and white. As it matures the white flesh will develop into a dry, powdery spore mass (compare with the  Scleroderma above).

Lycoperdum compactum (photo Geoff Ridley)

Lycoperdum compactum showing solid white flesh that has yet to develop into a spore mass (photo Geoff Ridley)


Pettersen RH 1988. The clavarioid fungi of New Zealand. Department of Scientific and Industrial Research. DSIR Bulletin 236.