The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, October 31, 2003


Dead Man's Fingers

For Halloween, we can forget about cute little cup-fungi batting their eyelashes and go for something scarier, slimier, creepier or crawlier. Last Halloween we had the Wolf's Milk Slime and there's a lot of it around again now. This year, I looked for Witches' Brooms and Witches' Butter, which I know are in Carlisle, but found none. West Nile Virus is altogether too scary. It's also very tricky to photograph, so I have decided to treat you to Dead Man's Fingers.

Name: Xylaria polymorpha or Dead Man's Fingers. Xylaria means pertaining to wood, and polymorpha means that it has many forms. Like last week's eyelash fungus, Dead Man's Fingers, are also classified as a "sac" fungus in the division, Ascomycota.

When and where found: In the Towle woods on October 19, on the same birch log as the eyelash fungus, Scutellinia. It was down where the log was in contact with the ground. (The eyelash fungus was growing near the topside of the log.)

Distinguishing characteristics: The most obvious characteristic is the finger-like shape and size. Some are more club-shaped, like the one in the photo; others are malformed twisted fingers. All have a rounded tip, a rough black textured surface, and a very hard exterior. Inside, there is a whitish corky substance. With an old specimen, like the one I found, the tough black exterior coating will crumble if you try and cut it open, and it will be dried up inside. They usually grow on hardwood logs or stumps. I have seen them in the summer, in a cluster of four or five, poking up through the ground looking like 'dead man's fingers'. They were near a stump and even though they appeared to be growing on the ground, they were actually growing on a buried part of the stump. There are excellent photographs of the microscopic characteristics of dead man's fingers on Tom Volk's website see reference section below.

Longevity: Most mushrooms don't waste time in releasing their spores. The mushroom appears, disperses its spores and disappears in a matter of days or sometimes even hours. Dead Man's Fingers have a long-term strategy. They disperse spores over several months improving the likelihood that at least some spores will encounter conditions favorable for germination.

Edibility: While not described as poisonous, only the most desperate, deprived (or depraved?) cannibals would put these in their omelettes. Anyway, it's Halloween eat candy.

Reference: David Arora, Mushrooms Demystified; Tom Volk, mycology professor at University of Wisconsin,

Submissions and ideas for the Biodiversity Corner are needed to get me off my favorite topic of fungi. What are you finding in your backyard or on your walks in the woods? This time of year creatures try to get shelter from the cold by coming into the house. What's sharing your house? Send a note to Kay Fairweather at 392 School St, Carlisle MA 01741 or to

2003 The Carlisle Mosquito