A couple of weekends ago I took the opportunity to stroll through a small nature reserve close to home. It was once the site of a coal mine and later a clay pit, but work ceased many years ago. The old pit area is now filled with mixed deciduous woodland, and surrounded by Forestry Commission conifers. The weather had been cold, and the sun was shining – so a great day for a walk. Underneath a bank of beech trees there were some fallen branches lying around, supporting a number of strange block growths that turn out to be Dead Moll’s Fingers – Xylaria longipes. What a fantastic name! In a dark forest it is easy to see how the name comes about. They look just like fingers coming up out of the dark earth.
These fungi grow as club shaped cylinders and are often twisted. At between 5-10 cm high and around 1 cm in diameter they are quite distinctive, especially as they are a very dark blackish brown with a rather rough surface. However in the spring it is much lighter in colour when it is covered in a greyish powder. X.longipes is saprobic on decaying hardwood logs and sticks (especially the debris of beech and maples), growing directly from the wood (1). It can be found growing alone or gregariously as it causes a soft rot on the substrate.
There is another similar species Xylaria polymorpha – Dead Man’s Fingers, but this is more robust with a thicker cylindrical shape and is generally not so tall.
The presence of this X.longipes in wood is said to improve the quality of stringed musical instruments made from it (2,3). Wood is innoculated with the fungus, which alters the structure of the cell walls of the wood and thus the acoustic qualities of the wood are changed. Once it has done its job the fungus is gassed with ethylene oxide to kill it. An anti-microbial substance has been isolated from the fungus which shows promise as a food preservative. Conversely, it has also been tested for use with mopping up residual veterinary antibiotics to prevent them entering the environment via animal faeces.
Xylaria is from the Latin xulon, meaning “wood”, and aria, meaning “pertaining to”, while longipes is from longus, meaning “long”, and pes, meaning “foot” (6). In French it has another great name and is called Pénis de bois mort – ‘dead wood penis’.
1. Fungi of Great Britain & Ireland. http://fungi.myspecies.info/taxonomy/term/6651/descriptions
2. Schwarze FWMR, Spycher M, Fink S (2008). “Superior wood for violins – wood decay fungi as a substitute for cold climate”. New Phytologist. 179 (4): 1095–1104.
3. Science Daily. (2012) Treatment with fungi makes a modern violin sound like a Stradivarius. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/09/120908081611.htm?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+sciencedaily+%28ScienceDaily%3A+Latest+Science+News%29
4. Schneider G, Anke H, Sterner O (1996). Xylaramide, a new antifungal compound, and other secondary metabolites from Xylaria longipes. Zeitschrift für Naturforschung 51 (11-2): 802–6.
5. NBN. Xyloria longipes Distribution Map. https://data.nbn.org.uk/Taxa/NBNSYS0000020468
6. Wright, J. (2014) Naming of the Shrew. A curious history of Latin names. Bloomsbury