Tag Archives: fungus

Garden of Horrors: Cordyceps

Garden of Horrors: Cordyceps

Garden of Horrors faithful probably expected we’d eventually come to this: a particular fungus (It’s always a fungus, why is it always a fungus!?) with a terrifying parasitic ability it infects and then enslaves its host. That’s right, today we’re looking at Cordyceps.

Here’s how it works: Cordyceps spores infiltrate an insect’s body, infecting them. Once infected, the real terror begins; the fungus takes control of the insect’s muscles, driving it upward where it forces the insect to fasten itself to a branch and waits for death. The fungus eventually fruits, pushing through the exoskeleton. This kills the host, and the added height helps spread the cordyceps’ spores over the most extensive area possible infecting others below, and the cycle repeats.

Cordyceps ignota parasitizing on a bird spider
Cordyceps ignota parasitizing on a bird spider – Photo by Ian Suzuki, Wikimedia Commons

Ghastly right? It’s pretty clear why these parasites have become known as the “zombie” fungus. The concept of something taking control of your muscles and dragging your conscious mind along for the ride is the sort of story you’d expect from a horror novel, not the natural world. It’s no wonder both Mike Carey (in The Girl with All the Gifts), and Naughty Dog Studios (in The Last of Us) used cordyceps as the source for their zombie apocalypse. The very idea is unnerving.

But it’s not all horrible. In Traditional Chinese medicine, Cordyceps is actually collected and dried and has been used for centuries to treat fatigue, sickness, kidney disease, and apparently low sex drive. There’s been other research happening as well looking into the other potential benefits of imbibing cordyceps. So, for those who always ask: “Can I eat this?” Yes! Yes, you can eat this weird parasitic fungus that wrestles control of the motor function of insects forcing them to climb higher and higher until the fungus kills them. Apparently, it’s good for you.

The 2006 BBC Earth special Planet Earth featured a small segment on the cordyceps, and it included some amazing footage. You can watch it in all its enthralling details below.

Funny enough, new research from Penn State University and the University of Notre Dame has only made our understanding of cordyceps more unnerving. As I implied above—and what Planet Earth got wrong at the time—cordyceps don’t take over its host’s brain. It only takes control of the muscles. This means the host is very much aware of what is happening to it as it performs its upward death march. Yikes.


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Ascocoryne sarcoides

Garden of Horrors: Ascocoryne sarcoides

Perhaps it is the nature of fungus to be disgusting? Maybe they exist on some other level that demands grossness? Some union thing? Spiritually one could see it as a physical manifestation of wickedness—a glimpse into the darkness that dwells within the fungus’ soul. I mean, who really knows? Regardless of the reasoning, one thing is certain—fungi tend to be featured in Garden of Horrors much more than plants. They always put their best (worst?) “foot” forward, and today’s entry is no different.

Meet Ascocoryne sarcoides, more commonly called “jelly drops” or “purple jellydisc” by people with a much brighter outlook on life than me. Because I think we all know what this looks like and it ain’t no “jellydisc.” I mean… look at this thing:

Ascocoryne sarcoides
The fungus Ascocoryne sarcoides. Photographed in Pacific Spirit Park, Vancouver BC Canada – Photo by Daryl Thompson

“Jelly” isn’t the first word that comes to mind. I don’t want to spread this on toast. You can find these ugly little fungi all over the world. Various species are found in North Ameria, Northern Europe, parts of Asia, Australia, and down in South America. It gets around. A. sarcoides derives its nutrients from decomposing plant matter—usually trees, but species of choice tend to vary based on location. It’s not a picky eater.

While it took a while for scientists to land on a species name, they settled on the Greek word “sarkodes” fairly early on, it charmingly means “fleshy” or “flesh-like.” An indication of what this thing feels like when touched. Neat. I think it’s clear why this is the perfect addition to our terrible little garden. It looks like the remains of gelatinous innards spattered on the ground. It’s revolting and a touch horrific.

While the A. sarcoides has minor antibiotic properties, it’s not edible. So don’t put it in your mouth! Quick aside: it amuses me that this comes up all the time. Who would attempt this? What person would look at Guts Mc Fungus there and wonder if they could eat it? I don’t get it. I don’t understand people.

This is the part of Garden of Horrors where I like to share a video showing this thing growing. But thankfully, videos like that don’t exist! So, we’ll just have to make do with this short video of a guy poking at one.


Featured image by Stu’s Images


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Gymnosporangium juniperi-virginianae

Garden of Horrors: Gymnosporangium Juniperi-Virginianae

The natural world is often stranger than we give it credit, case in point heteroecious rust fungi which requires two hosts to complete their lifecycle. And some choose to do it in the creepiest way possible.

Enter Gymnosporangium juniperi-virginianae more commonly known as cedar-apple rust. The only thing more disturbing than its letter-salad binomial name is the way it looks—in particular in the spring when the pathogen is ready to leave its cedar/juniper home and find its next host.

The gall of Gymnosporangium juniperi-virginianae with with telial horns
The gall of Gymnosporangium juniperi-virginianae with telial horns

See what I mean? There’s something downright disgusting in those creepy finger-like protrusions. They remind me of an inverted tree-anemone (a comparison that is even more accurate when they’re wet.) Those are called telial horns, and they sprout from galls created by the fungus from the year before. Once it warms up the galls “sprout” and begins spreading spores that are usually looking for apple trees, although it’ll happily infest pears or hawthorns as well.

It’s not kind to the fruit trees either. Infestations can reduce the yield on crops and cause blemishes in the fruit—they can also kill the cedar trees as well. It’s so widespread that there’s loads of information out there focused on prevention. Luckily, the Teliospores can’t travel too far. So the best way to control the fungus is to remove cedars found within a mile of orchards. No cedars no fungus.

Here’s a quick video from Cornell University showing a timelapse of the horns growing from the fungi galls over six days. Vermiphobes you might want to look away.

Happy gardening.


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Dead Drop: Missives from the desk of K. M. AlexanderWant to stay in touch with me? Sign up for Dead Drop, my rare and elusive newsletter. Subscribers get news, previews, and notices on my books before anyone else delivered directly to their inbox. I work hard to make sure it’s not spammy and full of interesting and relevant information.  SIGN UP TODAY →

Hydnellum peckii

Garden of Horrors: Hydnellum Peckii

Sometimes nature is downright bizarre. Take the Hydnellum peckii, commonly called the “bleeding tooth fungus” (it’s also called “strawberries and cream” by people who, I assume, have never had strawberries or cream before.) When young the Hydnellum peckii produces a fluid that makes it look like a mushroom murder victim. It appears to “bleed” a red juice that in certain light looks an awful lot like blood. I’m not kidding, it’s kind of horrific.

A young Hydnellum peckii "bleeding"
A young Hydnellum peckii “bleeding”

The bright red fluid actually contains a pigment that is known to have anticoagulant properties, but it doesn’t stick around for very long. Once the fungus ages the “bleeding” stops and the Hydnellum peckii dries out and looks rather dull.

Despite its appearance, Hydnellum peckii is not poisonous, but the fungus is so bitter it’s considered inedible. Besides, why would you want to put this thing in your mouth anyway? That’s disgusting. Don’t be nasty.


Dead Drop: Missives from the desk of K. M. AlexanderWant to stay in touch with me? Sign up for Dead Drop, my rare and elusive newsletter. Subscribers get news, previews, and notices on my books before anyone else delivered directly to their inbox. I work hard to make sure it’s not spammy and full of interesting and relevant information.  SIGN UP TODAY →

Clathrus archeri

Garden of Horrors: The Clathrus Archeri

The natural world is weird, wonderful, and often terrifying. Case in point: this morning, I stumbled across the Clathrus archeri—a real-world Lovecraftian species of fungi. Its know more commonly as the “devil’s fingers,” but to me, it looks more like a chthonian spawn emerging from its egg. The sticky black gleba doesn’t help. Don’t believe me?

Clathrus archeri
The devil’s fingers breaking free from their shell.

While originally from the Australasia the devil’s fingers have spread over the last century. Mycologists think that during WW1 the Clathrus archeri hitchhiked on Australian supplies for the war effort. Likewise, these stowaways have also shown up in California where it’s believed they arrived with shipments of bamboo. If the picture above hasn’t creeped you out, here’s a timelapse I found on YouTube showing one emerge.

Oh, and when mature they smell like rotten flesh. Because of course.