Nature sure can be weird sometimes. From animals with funny mating habits and defensive behavior to plants that consume unlikely organisms for their nutrition (looking at you, Venus flytraps!), it seems anything is possible—and acceptable—when it comes to ensuring the survival of any species.
But there’s one organism in particular that’s stranger than anything you’ve seen before. They look a little bit like zombie hands clawing their way out of the dirt. Appropriately, they’re called dead man’s fingers, and their identity is somehow even creepier than their looks!
These might look like the fingers of the undead reaching up from the ground, but they don’t belong to a human—or a reanimated corpse—at all.
They’re actually part of a mushroom-like fungus that grows around dying trees or wood objects that stay in contact with the soil.
Dead man’s fingers are related to edible fungi like the morel and the truffle, except they’re completely inedible (yet non-toxic).
By the final stages of their lives, dead man’s fingers look like something your dog would leave in the yard., to put it bluntly. The only difference is that these stick straight up and down, so there’s no denying their identity!
More specifically, dead man’s fingers are the reproductive configuration of the fungus Xylaria polymorpha. Each “finger” has a tiny hole at the top where the fungus releases sexual spores. In their early stages, the fingers look blue with white tips. Later on, they darken entirely.
They usually develop around decaying wood or the bases of rotting or injured tree stumps, and they’ll grow anywhere from 1.5 to 4 inches tall. Sometimes they can cause black root rot. In all cases, however, the tree is already a goner by the time the fingers appear, as they only affect dead or dying trees.
Dead man’s fingers are attracted to dead apple, maple, beech, elm, and locust trees. They can appear around ornamental trees as well, like the kind of shrubbery used in landscaped yards.
When found, the first step to removing the fungus is identifying its source. Keep in mind that they could either be growing from the roots or the body of the tree.
Are the fingers growing on the trunk or roots of the tree? If they’re simply growing from the mulch beneath the tree, then the mulch can be removed and the fungus may be gone. Otherwise, there’s not much that can be done to save the tree. If a sick tree isn’t cut down, the rot can spread.
In their last stage of life, dead man’s fingers appear black. Affected apple trees may still produce small fruits, though they’ll usually die off quickly. Larger trees might show a more gradual decline.
Either way, these are deadly to anything they grow out of, and it’s important to pay attention.
Dead man’s fingers is also the name of a type of blue bean tree in China. This shrub is indigenous to places like Nepal, Bhutan, and northeastern India. The fingers themselves are really blue-hued, sausage-shaped fruit. Even though these fruits are actually edible, the plant is usually utilized as decorative or ornamental.
Yale Nature Walk
Although the fungal version of dead man’s fingers aren’t supposed to be ingested like their blue cousins in China, some people have tried to turn them into a culinary dish anyway.
If you’re crazy enough to try to cook them, it’s important not to eat ones that are too old or covered in spores. These will be best enjoyed raw and shaved over something warm. Still, you must be careful, because raw mushrooms are a bit of a challenge to digest!
Alan Bergo / Forager Chef
Despite some people’s attempts to cook dead man’s fingers, they mostly serve as a warning sign and represent the health of the land and trees on which they grow. To prevent further growth on the trees in your yard, avoid planting anything where dead man’s fingers have been observed.
The QI Elves / Twitter
Sometimes, dead man’s fingers are used to increase the acoustic properties of wood used to create violins. They are inoculated in the violin wood for a short time, which helps to decrease the wood’s density. The fungi is then killed with ethylene oxide so that it does not rot the wood in the end.
Andrew Khitsun / Wisconsin Mushrooms
Researchers have found that dead man’s fingers contain an effective antimicrobial compound that may be able to be used as a natural food preserve. That’s pretty interesting in itself, especially considering the fact that this fungus is mostly known in the United States as being deadly to trees!
Andrew Khitsun / Wisconsin Mushrooms
Imagine seeing this in the woods? Remember that this fungus is not so much the cause of the problem, but the result of it; it only appears when a tree has already begun to decay. Thankfully, it’s non-toxic, and you don’t need to fear if you ever stumble upon it in the woods!