The popular and common classic umbrella-shaped cap typically comes to mind when most people think of mushrooms. But there are myriad fungi species that exist that don’t explicitly rely on spreading spores via gills. Enter the gasteroid or “stomach” pouch fungus.
Gasteroid fungi include oddities from puffballs, earthstars, stinkhorns, and false truffles that appear potato-like. These species have adapted so that their spores are produced internally rather than on an outer surface.
Walking through New Zealand forests, gasteroid fungi vividly stick out and possess a wide variety of colors juxtaposed against their environment, asking to be found. Their striking appearance and smell attract both insects, birds, and curious humans that help spread spores. This post will look at some of New Zealand’s prevalent pouch fungus and the reasons behind why each species is the way it is.
Many gasteroid fungi were formally described in Carl Linnaeus’s Species Plantarum published in 1753. In 1801, Christiaan Hendrik Persoon further expanded and classified the group. Until 1981, Persoon’s classifications were based on naming Gasteromycetes for algae, fungi, and plants.
Collectively, gasteroid fungi make up around 8.4% of the known Agaricomycetes of which include 17 orders, 100 families, 1147 genera, and about 21000 species.
From the North to the South Island, I have encountered these kinds of fungi all over New Zealand.
Rossbeevera pachydermis / Potato Fungus
(Formerly Chamonixia pachydermis)
Bulbous white tumor-like growths stick out from the green moss or dark soil on the ground. These potato fungi start bright white then with age bruise and darken to a blueish-green color while the inside is dark brown with an unpleasant smell.
R. pachydermis is native and endemic to New Zealand and grows only in beech forests.
Scarlet Pouch / Leratiomyces erythrocephalus
There is mimicry in Leratiomyces erythrocephalus, as well as other pouch fungi. Instead of utilizing wind to carry spores, various truffle-like fungi use smell to attract ground-dwelling mammals that eat and then poop to spread spores throughout the forest floors.
Out near Lake Henry in Te Anau, I find many red berry-like Scarlet Pouch fungus on the ground, which entice birds to consume. Instead of using pungent smells to attract them, they display a vivid red color. While mammals typically have exceptional noses, their eyesight is poorer than birds, who have some of the largest and best eyesight in the animal kingdom.
The number of photoreceptors in a bird’s eye can be in the millions per mm2 versus us humans at 200K photoreceptors. 90% of these receptors seek out color, and birds can naturally detect the color red. We see this co-evolution in plants where plants have adapted to grow colorful flowers that encourage bird dispersal for millions of years.
The Leratiomyces erythrocephalus looks similar to small red berries and also thrives in otherwise rare nitrogenous bird poop. Given that New Zealand has no endemic land-based predators and is bird country, it’s fitting that the Scarlet Pouch fungus would be found here.
I think Gallacea scleroderma stands out the most out of all the false truffle species. A vivid purple, they’re hard to miss, and I’ve found handfuls of these potato-like fungi sticking out of the ground. They can grow pretty big at around 100mm.
I envision what it would be like to get in between a massive Moa and what was assumed to be a part of their diet. Bursts of color protruding out of the soil grab my attention.
Purple Pouch Fungus (Cortinarius porphyroideus & other similar species)
Cortinarius porphyroideus, commonly known as purple pouch fungus, is a secotioid species found in the beech forests of New Zealand. It was one of six species that appeared as part of a series depicting native New Zealand fungi on stamps, released in 2002.
C. porphyroideus has only been found near Wellington, though. There are species that look similar but aren’t closely related phylogenetically. There are four new species of Cortinarius with strong morphological similarity to C. porphyroideus: Cortinarius diaphorus, C. minorisporus, C. purpureocapitatus, and C. violaceocystidiatus.
I first came across this species while hiking the Abel Tasman Coastal Track and going back into the bush to walk along the Tinline Trail. Underneath fallen golden fern fronds, the purple bulbous pouch poked out from the underbrush.
A tiny hole where a small snail or insect burrowed is almost guaranteed to be found. Another instance, among light green moss, over ten purple pouch fungus grew. Kahurangi National Park towards the Flora Hut among the beech forest. The cap wasn’t the typical dark violet color, yet still kept the same tone as the light purple stipe.
Devil’s snuffbox (Lycoperdon perlatum)
From Greek, Lycos- means wolf and -perdon means to break wind.
Several European dialects make the mushroom name sound like “wolf-farts.” Clustered together, these stuck out and appeared eerily flesh-like. A strange puffball covered in tiny black and brown warts was found in the leaf litter along the side of the track that looped around Lake Rotopounamu.
I would later find out that the Genus Lycoperdon has about 50 species, with varying shapes (pear-shaped) and textures (gem-studded), and tones. They’re said to be edible and range in taste from mild to a distinct flavor of shrimp.
Earthstar / Geastrum velutinum
Psilocybe weraroa (syn. Weraroa novae-zelandiae) is a hallucinogenic pouch fungus of New Zealand.
Psilocybe weraroa is found growing solitary to gregarious on decaying wood buried in forest leaf litter, often on the rotting branches of Melicytus ramiflorus. It has also been found fruiting on rotted cabbage trees. It is often associated with decaying fern fronds, native to New Zealand forests, typically South of Wanganui in the North Island.
It is fairly abundant from April till August in lowland mixed rain-forest around Wellington, Porirua, Hutt Valley, Kapiti Coast, Manawatu, and South Wairarapa. The pouch fungus has been found in winter in Central Hawkes Bay, where they tend to be found around fallen pine cones – not in pine forests but in areas where other kinds of trees intersperse pines.
They are also found in the South Island. The mushroom is sometimes hard to see because it is usually hidden under dried leaves. It is often eaten by slugs and sometimes hard to find specimens that haven’t been nibbled on.
Clavogaster virescens / Blue Pouch Fungus
Many get Clavogaster virescens and P. weraroa species confused, especially at different growth stages where one can look nearly indistinguishable from the other. Yet, the tale-tell sign is the conical, pointy shape paired with the specific hue of blue. P. weraroa tend to be more spherical, smaller, white, and more translucent than the Clavogaster virescens.
Bird’s Nest Fungus
Nidulariaceae (‘nidulus’ – small nest)
A master of mimicry, the Bird’s Nest fungi looks just like an avian nest, the eggs being lentil-shaped peridioles that contain spores. The tops of these fungi are enclosed at first, but after they mature, they open up to expose “seeds,” which are flung into the air after raindrops splash and project these peridioles around 3 to 4 feet (1-1.3m). The sticky membrane latches onto a plant stalk for the peridiole to dry and release spores.
Flemish botanist Carolus Clusius first mentioned bird’s nest fungi in Rariorum plantarum historia (1601). Over the next couple of centuries, these fungi were the subject of some controversy regarding whether the peridioles were seeds and the mechanism by which they were dispersed in nature.
For example, in his work Traité des champignons (1790–3), the French botanist Jean-Jacques Paulet proposed the erroneous notion that peridioles were ejected from the fruiting bodies by some sort of spring mechanism.
These are but a handful of the popular gasteroid fungi found in New Zealand. As more are discovered, they will be added to this post.
RELATED: The Alienness of White Basket Fungus
Nilsen, Andy R., et al. “Purple Haze: Cryptic Purple Sequestrate Cortinarius in New Zealand.” Mycologia, vol. 112, no. 3, 2020, pp. 588–605., doi:10.1080/00275514.2020.1730120.
Pinzone, Philip. “Mimicry in Leratiomyces Erythrocephalus.” Forest Floor Narrative, Forest Floor Narrative, 12 Oct. 2018, www.forestfloornarrative.com/blog/2018/10/12/mimicry-in-leratiomyces-erythrocephalus.