Have you heard about wood ear?
Packed with powerful antioxidants and health-boosting compounds, this marvelous mushroom makes a delicious and nutritious addition to any forager’s basket.
Read more about wood ear mushroom benefits.
Wood ear isn’t difficult to forage, but you need to know what you’re looking for. Read on to discover how to identify wood ear mushroom and learn about some look-alikes to avoid.
How to Identify Wood Ear Mushroom
Many wood ear fungi look like human ears, but all flushes are different, and some lack a distinct ear-like appearance. You may find them growing alone, in clusters, or in rosettes. Wood ear has a particular jelly-like consistency and a lot of size variance.
Young specimens might measure under an inch across, and fully mature mushrooms can reach over five inches. Their overall appearance can vary widely, so it’s essential to learn about all the ways wood ear might manifest.
Wood ear is a basidiocarp in the genus Auricularia. Until recently, mycologists didn’t differentiate between different types of wood ear. Now, 37 species are recognized worldwide, and this number changes regularly with new research. Understandably, taxonomy and regional nicknames can cause a lot of confusion.
You may hear this fungus called jelly ear, pig ear, or Judas ear. Each nickname may refer to any number of Auricularia species. The most important thing you need to know is that they all look similar, are edible, and may be used as medicine — though taste and potency may differ slightly by species.
Wood ear is one of the most prolific mushrooms around, with various species growing across Asia, Europe, and South America.
It’s extremely prevalent in the American Southeast but can be found in every region of the continental US. It grows in forests and along forest edges, preferring wet and humid environments with shade and dappled sunlight.
Wood ear is a saprobe, or decomposer fungus. It feasts on downed trees, rotting logs, and old stumps. Rumor has it that wood ear prefers elder trees, but I find most of mine on downed beech and oaks. They can thrive on any type of hardwood or conifer, with different species preferring different kinds of trees.
If you see wood ear growing on a live tree, it’s currently decomposing and will die soon. On the plus side, the wood ear will still be okay to harvest and consume. You will never find wood ear growing on the ground — if you do, examine it closely. Either it’s growing on a buried log, or you found a look-alike.
Wood ear is known to be a cool-weather mushroom but can pop up anytime. Some species prefer mild weather, while others prefer colder temperatures.
I usually forage wood ear during the spring or fall. It is frost-hardy, but most species don’t fruit prolifically in a freeze, so you rarely find it fresh during harsh winters.
Wood ear grows rapidly after periods of cooler temperatures and heavy rain followed by sunshine. It can pop up seemingly overnight, and I find it usually reaches its peak size within a few days. However, the growth rate varies depending on climate and conditions.
Once its life cycle is over, you may still be able to harvest wood ear. Especially if humidity levels drop or the weather is frigid, wood ear will dry on the log instead of rotting away.
Because of its unique composition, it shrivels down and dehydrates but does not decompose. If you’re lucky, you can sometimes find and harvest wood ear that fruited weeks or even months ago.
Wood ear can be confusing to identify because there are many species that all look a bit different. Even within a single species, distinct flushes adapt to their conditions and vary widely in appearance. Though many of these fungi look exactly like ears, others can resemble cups, coral, or brownish lumps.
Wood ear does have a stem, but it’s short and hard to distinguish. Many specimens appear to sprout directly from the wood sideways in semicircles or kidney shapes. Where the fruiting body attaches to the stem, it pulls in, creating an array of creases and wrinkles that give it an ear-like appearance.
Sometimes, wood ear grows from the top of logs. In these instances, the individual fungi are shaped like cups or disks and have fewer wrinkles. Since the mushroom has more room to spread out, it may grow larger and broader.
Mycelium usually produces many fruiting bodies, and individual wood ears might grow very close together. As these mushrooms mature, they often meld together on the branch. They overlap, folding in around each other and scrunching up. At this point, they stop looking like ears and start looking like a gelatinous dessert left out in the sun.
Various wood ear species range from light reddish-brown to very dark brown. Some species even have a purplish tint. When young, many wood ear fungi are almost translucent. As they grow, their color composition usually solidifies.
Mature wood ears are darker and opaque. When they wither and dry, they appear purple and black with a light grayish or tan underside. The underside is the “spore side” of wood ear and tends to be lighter than the top. You might not even see it on some specimens, but the color differential can be very pronounced on others.
While polypore mushrooms, such as turkey tail, have obvious pore-producing undersides, wood ear spores are microscopic. You might see a whitish mass where they gather on the fruiting body, but you can’t make out individual spores.
It can be hard to spot wood ear flushes since they blend in so well with the trees. To make it easier, train your eye to spot brown or purple splotches on deadwood.
Wood ear is a jelly fungus, and true to its type, it does have a gelatinous look and feel. The top side is often soft and fuzzy. It can be covered in tiny hairs and feel like velvet, though this is more pronounced on certain species. Either way, fresh fungi are soft and pliable.
Wood ear will yield easily when you touch it. You can manipulate it with your fingers, rolling it around and getting rough.
While look-alikes may fall apart like actual jelly, wood ear will bend and snap back like rubber. It has a bouncy, springy feel to it. If you find wood ear that has dried, it will be brittle and crack easily when you bend it.
Wood ear checklist:
- Growing on deadwood
- Ear or cup-shaped
- Wrinkly underside
- Solo or clustered
- Rubbery texture
- Brown-shaded colors
Wood Ear Mushroom Look-Alikes
While wood ear is a pretty singular shroom, some similar fungi can fool foragers. These are mostly benign, and some are even considered choice edibles. However, they don’t have the same nutritional profile and medicinal benefits as wood ear.
It’s important to distinguish these frauds from the real deal to stay on the right track.
The Exidia genus is a twisting and gelatinous bloodline of basidiocarp jelly fungi in the family Auriculariaceae. Many different varieties grow in a brown disk shape, and all may be referred to regionally as witch’s butter or amber jelly roll. Species like Exidia nigricans, Exidia glandulosa, and Exidia recisa are often mistaken for wood ear.
So, how can you tell them apart? Many Exidia are smaller and darker than wood ear. Those with an ear shape often have sharper, almost geometric lining and indentations instead of soft folds. If you’re in doubt, you can usually distinguish Exidia via texture. When you squeeze it, it won’t spring or flop back like wood ear. Instead, it will compress, and you might even squish it accidentally.
If you find it: Lucky you! Exidia fungi are edible and delicious. Harvest a few for soups, pickling, tinctures, or teas, but never consume any raw wild fungus.
Many members of the Peziza genus resemble wood ear to the untrained eye, including Peziza badia and Peziza repanda. Also known as cup fungi, most species of Peziza are shaped like a cup with edges that curl upward. Many are brown and grow in clusters. Especially from afar, they can easily fool you.
Pay attention to their habitat and texture. Cup fungi aren’t necessarily saprobic and might grow from many things. If a fungus grows from the ground, a manure pile, or between the cracks in your driveway, it’s not wood ear — it’s most likely Peziza.
However, some cup fungi grow from wood as well. To determine what you found, pay close attention to shape. Peziza tends to have a more pronounced individual shape. The sides usually curl up more, and most lack stems. If you aren’t sure, check the texture. Since cup fungi aren’t jelly fungi, they tend to be more brittle and break apart more easily.
If you find it: Leave it alone. There are many Peziza species. Some are edible, but some are considered poisonous. Unless you have a microscope and a Mycology degree, you shouldn’t risk it.