Tom Volk's Fungus of the Month for January 2003

by Tom Volk and Sean Westmoreland

This month's fungus is Hericium americanum, the pom pon mushroom, a.k.a. Lion's mane, the bear's head tooth fungus, monkey head, or (for this month) the icicle mushroom.

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Hericium americanum icicles

Although we never find it here at this time of the year, this month's fungus is a beautiful (and edible) representation of January in the north, resembling icicles hanging from the rooftop. However, you can often find it for sale, since it's often cultivated on sawdust or other wood and cellulose-containing waste products. You maybe surprised to learn that it's actually one of the easiest macrofungi to cultivate, often fruiting just a few weeks after you inoculate it into the substrate, even before you think it's ready. As a bonus, it's quite delicious, with a taste reminiscent of lobster if it's properly prepared. We like it lightly sautéed in a mixture of olive oil and butter, with just enough heat to turn the teeth a golden brown. It also makes a fine Lobster HelperTM. You might also try it in soup, as a substitute for rice, noodles or ancini de pepe (or other little Italian pastas). It's great in stir fry. You can also buy various species of Hericium in dried form, but we don't think it's as delicious as fresh mushrooms. It's often marketed as "Pom Pon Blanc" or the "Bear's Head tooth," but we prefer the Chinese name, which translates as "Monkey Head." But perhaps that's not a good name for marketing. "I'd like three pounds of Monkey Head, please...."

basket of abundant Hericium

Hericium is one of the tooth fungi, formerly placed in the Hydnaceae. (Did you hear about the mycologist who always won at poker because he Hydnaceae up his sleeve?) In 1821 Elias Magnus Fries attempted to list and classify all of the fungi that were known at the time. He had four very large genera for the basidiomycetes-- Agaricus for all the gilled fungi, Boletus for all the pore fungi, Clavaria for all the coral fungi, and Hydnum for all the tooth fungi. (Hydn- is the root of the Greek word for tooth.) It was very easy to determine the genus for any fungus, but the genus names told you about only one character of the fungus-- how it bears its spores. In modern genera, much more than that is communicated just by saying the name, including its microscopic characters, some macroscopic characters, its ecological niche, and often much more. We now classify the species that have teeth in dozens of other modern genera, many of which are not closely related. It seems that the toothed spore bearing surface (hymenophore) has evolved many separate times. There are 13 (thirteen!) families of fungi that contain at least one toothed member. Hericium is now considered to be a member of the Hericiaceae, a family of fungi that have spiny amyloid spores, along with lots of gloeopleurous (GLEE-oh-PLUR-ess) hyphae-- i.e. hyphae filled with many oil droplets. We don't have time now to go into the details of the other families-- we'll save that for a later date. The table below lists the families of Basidiomycota that have at least one member with teeth, as well as some of the genera in each family that have at least one toothed representative.

Family Representative toothed genera
Auriscapliaceae Auriscalpium
Bankeraceae Bankera, Phellodon
Cantharellaceae* Hydnum
Clavariaceae Mucronella
Coniophoraceae* Gyrodontium
Corticiaceae Amaurodon, Brevicellicium, Cristina, Dacryobolus, Dentipellis, Dichostereum, Fibrodontia, Hyphodontia, Gloiodon, Gloeodontia, Odontia, Mycoacia, Sarcodontia, Phanerochaete, Phlebia, and others
Echinodontiacae* Echinodontium
Gomphaceae* Beenakia, Kavinia
Hericiaceae Hericium
Hymenochaetaceae Hydnochaetae, Asterodon
Polyporaceae Irpex, Mycorrhaphium, Steccherinum, Spongipellis, Trichaptum, Climacocystis, Climacodon, Fuscocerrena, Hydnopolyporus, Pycnoporellus, Schizopora, Trametes and others
Thelephoraceae Hydnellum, Sarcodon, Tomentella
Tremellaceae Pseudohydnum
* no Hydnum members by Fries, but at least one member with a toothed hymenophore  

Unknown NAMA forayer with a LARGE Hericium abietisThere are several species of Hericium throughout the world. To the left is a first-time NAMA foray participant with a very large Hericium abietis that he found near Diamond Lake, Oregon in October 2002. If anyone knows him, please let me know his name! If you get the chance, you really should attend these North American Mycological Association annual forays, attended by amateur and professional mycologists from all over. Tom Volk has been to 12 of the last 13, throughout North America. The next one will be in Quebec City, the first weekend in September 2003. Tom will be there, probably lecturing about tooth fungi.

Hericium abietis is the common species found in western North America- as you might guess it grows on conifers. Most of our eastern species almost always grow on hardwoods, especially willows and maples. Hericium erinaceus is the most commonly cultivated member of the genus and is characterized by long spines that never branch. It seems to become more common as you head south. The other species, such as H. ramosum, H. coralloides, and H. americanum, are much more difficult to distinguish from one another. Most books will tell you that you have to look at the branching pattern of the limbs that bear the spines, but we have found this to be enormously variable, and thus confusing. There are microscopic characters, such as spore size, that more easily distinguish the closely related species. If you're just going to eat them, we have found them all to be quite similar in taste and texture, and thus there is no need to identify them to species, unlike gilled fungi and boletes, where identification to species is almost always an absolute necessity to safely eat mushrooms.

Sean Westmoreland in AlaskaThis month's FOTM co-author is Sean Westmoreland, one of my graduate students in the Department of Biology, shown to the right. He got his undergraduate degree from Appalachian State University in North Carolina. He's getting his Master's degree soon on the systematics of Hydnellum, a mycorrhizal tooth fungus, using morphological, biochemical, and DNA studies. We'll have a report soon on this genus.

We hope you learned something about Hericium today. It's a beautiful and delicious fungus. Maybe you can find some in your local store or restaurant. Or maybe if you're lucky enough to live where it's warm this time of year, you might find it on your nearest log. Or you can wait until spring, summer, and especially fall, when you can find this fungus in abundance.

If you have recommendations for future FOTM's please write to me at Or maybe you'd like to be co-author of a FOTM?

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