When it comes to the natural world, fungi are (truly) in a kingdom all their own. They help humans brew tasty beverages like beer, they recycle nutrients from dead plants and animals, and they provide nutrients for trees. Of course there are others that destroy food crops and kill any humans who accidentally ingest them. You never know what you’re going to get with fungus. In celebration of their weird and wonderful world, here are 15 fungi that will blow your mind (some of them in a literal sense).
1. SHOESTRING FUNGUS (ARMILLARIA OSTOYAE)
Jerzy Opioła via Wikimedia Commons
Hidden underground in Malheur National Forest, Oregon lives a creature so large it makes the blue whale look small. Meet the Humongous Fungus, the world’s biggest living organism. This four-square-mile patch is mostly hidden from view (a few odd mushrooms pop up here and there), but its impact is, well, humungous: this type of fungus causes root disease and kills conifers across North America.
2. BLACK WITCHES' BUTTER (EXIDIA GLANDULOSA)
This blister-like fungus grows on decaying logs and fallen branches, looking flat and rougher in dry conditions and swollen after rain. Despite its unappetizing appearance, the fungus is edible—though you might want to add some seasoning.
3. BLEEDING TOOTH FUNGUS (HYDNELLUM PECKII)
One of the more disgusting-looking fungi of the world might cause concern for hikers who stumble across it. But the red liquid oozing out of it isn’t blood—it emerges due to guttation. This is a process that causes rapidly growing or metabolizing plants to excrete excess fluids. For the bleeding tooth fungus, the fluid happens to be bright red.
4. GLOW IN THE DARK MUSHROOMS (MYCENA CHLOROPHOS)
There are plenty of fungi that exhibit bioluminescence, but this particular species from Southeast Asia is the oldest known example. What makes it give off that eerie green glow? In 2015 scientists discovered a compound called hispidin, an antioxidant that undergoes a chemical reaction to create a glowing light.
5. CHICKEN OF THE WOODS (LAETIPORUS SULPHUREUS)
Do you prefer your poultry in the form of nuggets, drumsticks—or maybe as fungus? This edible mushroom tastes like—you guessed it—chicken. It’s bright yellow and has no gills (the fine, black material you may have noticed on the underside of Portobello mushrooms). But watch out for a variation of this mushroom growing on conifers, since they’re a different species and might cause poisoning.
6. DUNG CANNON (PILOBOLUS CRYSTALLINUS)
Considering fungi are immobile, the superlative “fastest creature on Earth” might seem impossible. But when it comes to acceleration, the Dung Cannon is indeed the fastest organism: The fungus launches its crystalline spores at an acceleration rate of 1.7 million m/s2—faster than guns and even rocket ships.
7. RED YEAST RICE (MONASCUS PURPUREUS)
Moldy rice might not sound like an ideal element of a meal, but the mold Monascus purpureus actually makes a popular fermented food with possible medical uses. In addition to being eaten, red yeast rice is also sold as a supplement to decrease cholesterol.
8. WAVY-CAPPED MAGIC MUSHROOMS (PSILOCYBE CYANESCENS)
These mushrooms might look innocuous, but they pack a potent dose of psilocybin, a chemical that causes distorted perception, hallucinations, and intensified emotions. In 2001, scientists found 100,000 of the mushrooms growing along a racetrack in England, but more recently these fungi have made the news for their potential in treating mental illnesses like depression, anxiety and PTSD.
9. GEM-STUDDED PUFFBALL (LYCOPERDON PERLATUM)
Though this member of the puffball family resembles an anemone shell, it’s actually covered in detachable spiny warts. In urban areas it can be found near trampled ground and around curbs. It is edible, but foragers should be particularly careful, since lookalike species include the Pigskin Poison Puffball and the deadly Destroying Angel.
10. WHITE-ROT FUNGUS (PHANEROCHAETE CHRYSOSPORIUM)
Given its name, you might think this is a harmful fungus to be avoided. But white-rot fungus (here on the left) is actually quite valuable for its use in bioremediation—cleaning land that’s been contaminated by heavy metals and chemicals. White-rot fungi can deteriorate pesticides, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and even crude oil.
11. DEVIL'S FINGERS (CLATHRUS ARCHERI)
This woodland fungus is a native of Australia and New Zealand that has since spread throughout the world. It grows around leaf litter, decaying stumps, and woodchips. Its “fingers” are smelly and meant to attract flies, which then carry its spores away with them.
12. ALMOND MUSHROOM (AGARICUS SUBRUFESCENS)
These mushrooms were cultivated in the 19th century and used to be popular in North America, although they fell out of favor until more recently when they’ve been cultivated in Brazil and Japan. The almond mushroom is also thought to combat cancer by stimulating the immune system, though there haven’t been enough studies yet to prove its efficacy.
13. SLIME MOLD (STEMONITIS AXIFERA)
You’d think a slime mold would look, well, slimy, but in this case it’s actually more like hair. The furry brown strands are sporangia growing on top of thin, black stalks. For years, slime molds were thought to be fungi, but they’re actually multicellular amoebas whose spore structures mimic those of fungi.
14. REISHI MUSHROOMS (GANODERMA LUCIDUM)
Chinese civilizations have cultivated reishi mushrooms for medicinal purposes for more than 2000 years. They treat everything from bacterial infections to cancer (though studies are ongoing to see just how effective the mushrooms actually are). But more recently, a mycologist has found an alternative use for them—as building material. Their root-like mycelium is strong, waterproof, and fire-resistant, discovered Philip Ross. The mycelium bricks were even used to build towers at MoMA PS1 in New York.
15. RED CORAL FUNGUS (RAMARIA ARAIOSPORA)
Coral fungi are aptly named for their resemblance to coral, and they grow all over the world. Red Coral Fungus is a beautiful pinkish color, which turns green when sprinkled with iron salts. It’s also eaten and sold in markets in Mexico and Guatemala.