Dead Man’s Fingers

Xylaria polymorpha
Not recommended/not edible
Family

Xylariaceae

Description

Black, distorted, clublike or finger-shaped; wrinkled, charcoal-like surface. Grows at the base of rotting deciduous trees and stumps. June–October, but can be found all year. Fruiting body irregularly clublike or finger-shaped, short-stalked; black, like charcoal; surface texture finely wrinkled or roughened; flesh inside is whitish and tough. Spore print dark brown to black. Spores magnified are narrow, spindle-shaped, flat on one side.

Lookalikes: There are a few other, similar Xylaria species. Also, very young specimens of devil’s urn (Urnula craterium) have rounded tops before the cup opens.

Size

Fruiting body width: ½–1¼ inches; height: ½–3 inches.

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Photo of dead man's fingers, cluster of small gray clublike fungi on wood
Dead Man's Fingers (Young Specimens)

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Photo of dead man's fingers, a column-shaped fungus, halved, showing white in it
Dead Man's Fingers (Halved)

Dead Man’s Fingers

Dead Man’s Fingers
Dead Man’s Fingers
Habitat and conservation

Grows in clusters at the base of rotting deciduous trees and stumps. In spring, dead man’s fingers may be covered with white, powdery spores that blacken as the mushroom matures. This is an eerie, unusual-looking mushroom — there is nothing quite like it.

image of Dead Man's Fingers Distribution Map
Distribution in Missouri

Statewide.

Status

Not edible.

Life cycle

This species exists as a network of fungal cells (mycelium) within dead trees, stumps, and buried dead tree roots, digesting and decaying the wood. In spring, the mycelium develops thin “fingers” aboveground. Spores form on the "skin" of these structures and float away to start new mycelia elsewhere. As the “fingers” mature over the summer, they grow and become more grotesque and fingerlike. By season's end, they dry and look like something from a cat's litter box.

Human connections

Fungi can be strikingly beautiful — or breathtakingly strange! Discovering fungi can bring out our innate capacity for awe and wonder. We can choose to view them with disgust, amusement, or plain curiosity.

Ecosystem connections

Fungi are vitally important for a healthy ecosystem. This fungus feeds off of dead trees, decomposing the tough materials wood is made of. This cleans the forest and helps nutrients to cycle back into the soil.