When I first submerged myself in the world beneath the forest floor, I found a fungus so bizarre, so incredibly weird, that I couldn’t leave it alone. 40 minutes into a hike within a late-stage hemlock and pine dominated forest, there it was. In my first encounter, I closely examined the spore producing tooth like spines underneath, smelled the red sticky liquid oozing from its cap, took notes and carried out full on photo shoot. Encapsulated by the specimen, I felt as if I was exploring a far and distant world filled with undescribed species not known to science. Regardless of my so called ‘discovery,’ this peculiar fungus has been described for a little more than 100 years, but even before humans started categorizing organisms, Hydnellum peckii has been popping up in old-growth coniferous forests for millions of years.
Its common names include the bleeding tooth fungus, Devil’s tooth, and strawberries and cream to name a few. Common names sometimes make laugh, and these are no exception. The oozing red and sharp looking teeth structures look evil enough to some the call the fungus Devil’s tooth, while the white and red cap surface reminds others a delicious non-threatening treat we all grew up eating. What a duality! The individuals to coin the common name strawberries and cream must have not tasted the fungus, because although it isn’t toxic, it is extremely bitter.
Hydnellum peckii makes a living from the forest floor by forming mycorrhizal relationships. It expands a network of hyphae throughout the duff layer of coniferous forests. In this layer rich of the fallen litter from the tree species above, this network of hyphae enzymatically breaks down the inaccessible nitrogen and phosphorus bound up in organic matter. With more than enough nutrients absorbed to carry out its own lifecycle, Hydnellum peckii sends the excess to its tree hosts in return for a sugar reward. This demonic looking fungus has evolutionarily ‘figured out’ how to share.
Like all higher fungi with a mycorrhizal ecology, its ancestors actually played saprophytic roles in the ecosystems where they resided. Eventually, starting in the late Carboniferous around 300 million years ago, larger trees with higher nutrient demands started to dominate, opening up a new ecological niche. Some fungi exploited this opportunity, using their fine-tuned tools of enzymatic breakdown, and developing a means of nutrient transfer. For the higher fungi, the best answer to hyphal-root transfer is the bundle sheath surrounding fine plant roots.
These specialized fungi already so adept at scavenging and mining for rare soil nutrients paired so well their photosynthetic partners, that both kingdoms involved had gone through a series of adaptive radiations. This allowed the proliferation of countless fungal species and is a main reason for the incredible diversity of fungi we see today. Hydnellum peckii, like species of Russula, Cortinarius, Lactarius, Tricholoma, and Hygrophorusonly fruit in later successional forests, so if you do indeed find it, realize that you also found a wooded region left alone long enough for these slower growing fungi to establish themselves. When you do find this mesmerizing fungus, consider not its 100 years known to us humans, but its ancient evolutionary history. Realize that what you are looking at is a descendent of an opportunistic species that traversed to a mycorrhizal niche during the Carboniferous.