JUDAS’S EAR FUNGUS
THE fruiting bodies of fungi come in many shapes, sizes and textures. One particular species that has an unusual ear-like shape and a jelly-like texture which is relatively common, particularly in winter time is the jelly fungus, Auricularia auriculajudae.
It grows on dead wood originating from deciduous trees and shrubs, and tends to favour Elder. They can be very abundant and are stem-less at around 8cm across with a gelatinous texture. The upper surface is purplebrown and pinkish below and is attached to its wood substrate along one edge; they are often found very soon after a rainfall.
The most popular common name for this species is Judas’s ear but other common names are wood ear, free ear, black ear mushroom, and free jelly fish. Its popular common name derives from the legend that this species formed its ear-shaped fruiting bodies as a result of a curse on the tree that the apostle, Judas Iscariot hanged himself on following his betrayal of Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. The fungi are believed to represent the ears of Judas’s returned spirit, and are to remind us of his suicide. Whilst this may seem a bit of a far-fetched legend, this name has stuck and is even reflected in its taxonomic name; “Auricularia” meaning ear and “auricula-judae” meaning “the ear of Judas.” As with many other flora and fauna the common names that have been assigned to many species of fungi can range from being very descriptive and informative such as Birch Bracket fungus (Fomitopsis betulina), or Dead Man’s Fingers (Xylaria polymorpha) to the rather cryptic such as Destroying Angel (Amanita virosa).
These visible fruiting bodies of fungi, also known as sporocarps are part of the sexual phase of its life cycle producing spores and are often the only time that a fungi’s presence is obvious. The rest of fungal lifecycle is characterised by the vegetative growth of its hidden mycelia; a network of branching, thread-like hyphae. The mycelia networks of some fungi can be extremely large; a specific honey fungus with its mycelia spreading 2.4 miles (3.8 km) across in the Blue Mountains in Oregon is thought to be the largest living organism on Earth!
Judas’s Ear Fungus is generally regarded as inedible in western culture but is very popular in Oriental dishes; it has no direct flavour of its own but will absorb the flavours of the ingredients it is cooked in similar to tofu; it has a rather slippery and crunchy texture and is not to everyone’s taste. It is sold in a dried form in most oriental food stores, and speciality food markets. However, please remember, you should not attempt to eat any fungi unless you are 100% sure of its identification and whether is suitable for eating, as there are some very toxic species which look similar to edible species.
Winter time is a great time of year to get out into leafless woodlands to look out for the many colourful and unusual looking fungi that are abundant at this time of year. Please ensure that you are careful when touching any fungi as many are toxic.
It is generally safer for a novice to just enjoy the sight of fungi in their natural habitat and to take a photograph as a record. However, if you do need to take a sample for further identification then please just take a small sample which is in line with good conservation practices.