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Natural Perspective

The Fungus Kingdom: Sac Fungi

(Last modified: 25 July 1997)
[icon: ascomycota][icons:ascomycota]

The Sac Fungi (Ascomycota) are a diverse group. Most of these fungi do not produce substantial mushrooms; even fewer produce mushrooms worth eating. But Ascomycota do produce some of the most highly valued mushrooms: Morels and Truffles as well as the more unusual mushrooms such as the Candlesnuff fungus pictured here.

Sac fungi produce spores inside cases (asci) which may open at one end. This gives Ascomycota the ability to discharge spores forcefully by squeezing the asci. Several species including the Helvella and Xylaria pictured here release a cloud of spore "smoke" when disturbed. This phenomenon is quite interesting to observe and is also a useful diagnostic for identification: if the mushroom releases a cloud of light spores it is probably in this Phylum. (Note, though, that Puffballs and Earthstars may also release spores in a cloud, but they require an external force to eject the spores.)

[photo:  Morchella elata] Black Morel (Morchella elata)

Finding morels is a real challenge. Morels have a special knack for hiding out in the open. The casual observer may see the morel as a pebble or a pine cone and pass it by without even noticing. Morel hunters talk about "tuning their eyes" at the beginning of each morel season.

The gastronomic (and for professionals, economic) reward for this exercise is more than worth the effort.

[photo:  Morchella deliciosa] The Black Morel, above, is a forest dweller -- hiding under pines in dirt, pine duff or snow. The White Morel (Morchella deliciosa, left), however, is often found in urban locations growing among leaves or other discarded stuff.

Notice how well the morels blend into their respective backgrounds. In fact, this author could not find the white morels even after a friend had pointed out their general location.

False Morels (Helvellaceae) such as the one pictured far left at the top of this page, superficially resemble real morels.

[photo:  Aleuria aurantia] Another prominent group of Ascomycota is the Cup Fungi, so named for a macroscopic rather than microscopic feature. These fungi are in the same order as Morels (Pezizales) but look quite different.

The mushrooms of these fungi look like little cups or sacs and often do not have a stalk at all. An exception to this is the brightly colored Stalked Orange Peel Fungus (Aleuria rhenana). (Its sibling, the Orange Peel Fungus, Aleuria aurantia, grows without a stalk.)

[photo:  Xylaria hypoxylon] Candlesnuff Fungus (Xylaria hypoxylon, left) is in a group of mushrooms called Flask Fungi because of the shape of their asci, not because of their macroscopic shape.

These spooky-looking mushrooms are actually quite tiny -- perhaps an inch (2.5 cm) high. The young specimens pictured here were found growing among moss and wood at the start our rainy season. Later on the Xylaria form antler-like heads which, when disturbed, release copious amounts of white spore-smoke.

These are not "Dead Man's Fingers" mushrooms (Xylaria polymorpha) despite their striking finger-like resemblance in this photo.

Phylum: Ascomycota (spores produced in sacs)
Class: Euascomycetae
Order: Pezizales, Xyalariales
Family: Morchellaceae (Morels), Helvellaceae (false morels), Pezizaceae (cup fungi), Xylariaceae?
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