This peculiar looking fungus is found in parts of North America, north of Mexico. I have found sources say that it is locally common, but I have yet to encounter this species of fungus. Other sources say that it is rare, and on the fungal cataloging website, mushroomobserver.org, there are only 16 observations total. They have an and interesting body layout, looking like bundles of tiny white, deflated balloons attached to their strings, growing from forest debris. It is possible they have fruited in my vicinity on forest forays, but their small stature makes it exceedingly hard to locate.
Physalacria inflata was originally placed within the Clavariaceae, the family of fungi that make up the coral and club fungi. With its unique morphology, its phylogenetic placement has always been up for debate. Mycologist Charles Peck in 1882 published a paper that effectively moved the species to the correct order; Basidiomycota. Before Peck’s description, the species was considered an Ascomycete. Later, in 1923 Louis Krieger analyzed fresh samples and found more agaric characteristics, renaming it as Eoagaricus inflatus. However, this species name like so many fungal species, was short lived, as its current name became widely accepted by the mycological community in 1939.
Why did I just spend the last paragraph describing this species taxonomic journey? Well, after reading about this species, I was reminded of how new genetic techniques really are. Now, we can take a tissue sample, purify it, duplicate its genome thousands of times over, and sequence its unique genetic fingerprint in just a few hours. We can then search for its phylogenetic position on the fungal tree of life with just a few clicks. We tend to forget how the mycologists of yesterday worked. They mapped out branches of relatedness by just looking at morphological structures. This type of work was difficult and extremely time consuming, but incredibly necessary to the field of mycology. Without these fathers of mycology, who knows where our understanding would be today.
By simply looking at this species morphology, these mycologists did exceptionally well at placing it in the correct region of the fungal tree of life. Using modern genetic techniques I described above, their placement was confirmed! Physalacria inflata is closely related to gilled agarics like the wrinkled peach fungus (Rhodotus palmatus) and the porcelain fungus (Oudemansiella mucida). Let this post be a reminder of the work done by mycologists before the use of genetic techniques. Again, we would not have the same understanding we have now without their dedication to the mycological realm.