Autumn hikes bring me so much joy and always help motivate my studies. If I have writers block, or feel my learning plateau, I head to the woods and listen to what they have to say. Sometimes, I have an off day in the woods, and find myself rushing to complete the hike instead of taking my time to really observe the forest. I remind myself that this is normal, and that I’m only human. Off days happen, and sometimes they occur for no rhyme or reason. And that’s ok. We’re here to ride life’s ebb and flow and just make the most out of it. The first time I came across Sparassis crispa, I was having one of those off days. Now I’m not going to sit here and tell you that finding this fungus for the first time lifted me to new heights or anything, but it did lift me enough to finish the hike strong. I regained that sense of discovery and meticulously moved through the forest like an astronaut on another planet.
Sparassis crispa feeds on the roots of hardwoods in mixed deciduous forests. If it happens to penetrate and start consuming the roots of living trees, that individual is considered a parasite. If it breaks down roots from an already dead hardwood, it’s just considered a saprotroph. There are seven species within the Sparassis genus, and they really are unmistakable. From afar, it looks like someone dropped a head of cauliflower next the base of a hardwood. Upon closer investigation, these fungi look more like they belong in an aquarium instead of a grocery bag as they are quite comparable to certain brain corals.
These mushrooms really do have a fitting common name, because they are edible and are eaten around the world. In fact, the second time I found a Sparassis fungus I was in an Asian grocery store. Oh, and please do yourself a favor, if there is an Asian grocery store near you, check it out. One of the aisles in the store near me is dedicated to dried mushrooms, and the diversity is simply staggering. In that very aisle, I found huge two-pound bags of cauliflower mushrooms. In temperate forests near you, if you manage to be in the right place at the right time, you can collect a sizeable fresh haul of these organisms. You can actually revisit the same tree roots where cauliflower mushrooms fruited from before, because they tend to break down the same roots for several years.
A 1993 study by Woodward et al. help explain how these species dominate the substrate they fruit from. These researchers found that Sparassis crispa produces three antifungal compounds that help the fungus compete for space and resources. By identifying, isolating and testing these three compounds against the growth of other root inhabiting fungi, they found some pretty compelling results. Their original hypothesis was strongly supported as these isolated compounds completely suppressed the growth of another root fungus, Heterobasidion annosum and significantly reduced the growth of Rigidoporus ulmarius and Inonotus dryadeus.
Natural selection has favored the production of antifungal compounds in long lasting, perennial fungi. These compounds help the individual maintain a specific substrate, and as I said before, a species that competes, eats. Sparassis crispa truly is an awesome fungus I find in my neck of the woods. The first time I found Sparassis crispa I became inspired, and hopefully this article inspires you to take a hike and find something cool! Happy autumn foraging my fungal family!