I love plant hikes. Recognizing the vegetation around me makes a walk through the woods feel like encountering old friends: “Hello, Thuja plicata! Hello, Polystichum munitum!” But as I become more confident in my familiarity with the vegetation around campus and Vancouver, my complacency grows. Wandering the Botanical Gardens with Daniel, he is constantly and patiently correcting my plant identifications.
The brain wants to classify, and there is a natural tendency to try and force plants into known categories. Logically, of course I know that plant diversity far outpaces my knowledge–but that doesn’t stop me from wanting to call Calathea a sort of “groovy banana”, or from thinking “marijuana” when I see Japanese maple leaves. It is an unconscious, primary thought process, a sort of involuntary scanning that matches objects’ textures and shapes with those previously experienced. We are all predisposed to see patterns and make associations, but this is also a common logical fallacy. It takes conscious effort to demand a more critical, secondary thought process of ourselves. This is why, when someone steps back and challenges assumptions, I find it particularly exciting. Now, I am pleased to say that I can greet at least four more species of mushroom–and I resolve to do just that, with a healthy dose of uncertainty and a great deal more wonder.
Today’s photographer, Nhu Nguyen, has captured stipe cross-sections of Helvella vespertina, a new species of elfin saddle mushroom recently discovered masquerading on the UC Berkeley Campus under the name of a European relative, Helvella lacunosa.
Considered to be widespread and common, Helvella lacunosa has gone largely uncollected and perhaps enjoyed some anonymity for its wide distribution throughout Europe, Asia and North America. Its convoluted, gray to black cap is shaped like a squashed newspaper sporting a fuzzy underside and tall fluted stipe. In late summer to autumn, sometimes even into the winter months, this mushroom could be spotted frequenting open spaces such as parklands and lawns.
Researchers Nhu Nguyen and Else Vellinga were tipped off when a series of “mycoblitzes” (quick, intensive surveys for fungal species) indicated some genetic discrepancies between Californian and European taxa of the same name. Thus, investigations into the nature of Helvella lacunosa‘s identity began, relying on ITS and LSU rDNA sequences, as well as the morphology of the fruiting bodies (ascomata). Their full report is here: The Helvella lacunosa species complex in western North America: cryptic species, misapplied names and parasites. Helvella lacunosa–or what was called Helvella lacunosa is western North America–is now considered to be a group of at least four previously-unrecognized species which form a western North American clade. Two of these new species have been formally described: Helvella vespertina is the largest of the 4 species, with variable hymenial colour. It fruits near conifers from October to January. A second, the silky black elfin saddle or Helvella dryophila, was last observed in June associating with oak trees on UC Berkeley’s Observatory Hill. It is expected to be returning now and fruiting throughout the summer. The remaining two are as of yet undescribed, requiring further evidence. Nhu Nguyen has kindly provided some exclusive photographs of each of the aforementioned (the first two are Helvella vespertina, the last is Helvella dryophila).
These researchers’ revelations come at a time when DNA techniques are revolutionizing taxonomy, reminding science to be vigilant, self-analytical, creative and open-minded in its investigations. How many more species are as yet incognito, disguised under assumed identities in our very own backyards? The researchers ask that community members, botanists and mycologists alike keep on the lookout and collect specimens of elfin saddles for further inquiry! Alert your interested friends and family members to the ongoing North American Mycoflora Project. Please also read UC Berkeley’s news release, Mushroom Discovery on Campus, for additional information.