When I first came across the green elfcup (Chlorociboria aeruginascens) I was mystified to be seeing a color I almost never encounter in nature. With its adequate Latin name aerug- meaning "blue-green" and ascens which translates to "becoming," this fungus stains the wood it decomposes a beautiful shade of blue-green, and produces tiny cup shaped fruiting bodies of the same color. Apparently, some artists more than 500 years ago also saw the beauty in this species. If you come across this beautiful species take note that you might be looking at a closely related to a fungus called C. aeruginosa that resembles it almost identically, until you look closely at microscopic features. Interestingly, recent genetic analysis of these fungus show that they are more distantly related than we once thought.
In 2014, Daniela Tudor and her team conducted a study to look at the evolutionary relationships between these two seemingly identical species. They found that these species are more closely related to separate Southern Hemisphere taxa than they are to each other. By closely analyzing their genes, this paper indicates the occurrence of complex speciation processes over a wide global scale. Both species have a global distribution, and by looking at some Renaissance artwork located in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, we can confidently say that the green elfcup was present in Italy more than 500 years ago.
Fra Giovanni da Veroni was an Italian artist that used a method of wood inlaying called Intarsia. He too saw the beauty and uniqueness in this saprobic species of fungus. Museum curators and biologists alike wanted to know what type of blue-green dye this artist used on one his work dated to the early 1500’s. Pieces of this work were sectioned off and analyzed using scanning, light, and transmission electron microscopy as well as energy dispersive X-ray microanalysis to see what the green pigments were made of. With the absence of any heavy metals, it was concluded there were no pigments used. However, they found fungal evidence in the form of hyphae. Green portions of the wood were not uniformly distributed, and tended to be concentrated around aggregations of fungal hyphae.
My favorite type of artist combines his or her work with the forest floor. To see the beauty of Chlorociboria aeruginascens is one thing, but to use it in a piece of artwork that is hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art is another! Thank you Fra Giovanni da Veroni enrichening all of our lives. Happy Fungi Friday to every aspiring artist and mycologist out there!