Flammulina velutipes (Curtis) Singer - Velvet Shank

Distribution - Taxonomic History- Etymology - Identification - Culinary Notes - Reference Sources

Flammulina velutipes - Velvet Shank

Taxonomy

Phylum: Basidiomycota

Class: Agaricomycetes

Order: Agaricales

Family: Physalacriaceae

The lovely orange-brown caps of Flammulina velutipes continue fruiting through the winter. Commonly known as Velvet Shank, this is a stump-rotting fungus; it also occurs on standing dead wood.

To see a cluster of these splendid golden-orange caps sprinkled with snow on a crisp winter's morning makes a walk in the cold air seem very worthwhile indeed. We have seen them in good condition as late as the end of January.

Young fruitbodies of Flammulina velutipes, Velvet Shank

The young fruit bodies shown here were photographed at Noar Hill in Hampshire; they have pale upper stems, while the darker velvety sections are buried in the moss and rotten wood on which the fugi are growing. This is often the case when Velvet Shank grows on fallen timber.

On standing dead trees the clusters are usually tiered and, as a result, the caps are fairly regular, but on fallen wood sometimes tufts of Velvet Shank are so dense that the caps push against one another and become distorted and occasionally almost square.

Flammulina velutipes is particularly common on dead elm trees (of which there was no shortage during the 1970s and 1980s as Dutch Elm Disease ravaged the elm woods of Britain and Europe), but currently it is more often seen on Ash, Beech and oaks as well as occasionally on wood from other kinds of broadleaf trees.

Cultivated Enokitake mushrooms

Caps from these fungi are edible and are grown commercially in Japan, where they are variously known as Enoki, Enokitake or Enoko-take.

The Enokitake mushrooms pictured on the left were purchased in a supermarket in 2004. (Picture attribution: Chris 73 / Wikimedia Commons)

In the wild Flammulina velutipes grows in an unconstrained environment and in whatever daylight there is in winter. As a result the caps are colourful and quite large in comparison with the stem length and diameter, and the stems are generally quite tough so that many people cook only the caps.

In cultivation the mushrooms are grown in dark, cold places so that they develop slowly and are very pale - often almost pure white. The stems are forced to stretch by placing a tightly-fitting collar around clusters of mushroom ; as a consequence the stems are long, delicate and tender. The caps of cultivated Enokitake mushrooms are much smaller than those of wild Velvet Shank fungi. Unlike the wild form, the caps of cultivated varieties of this species are convex when the fruitbodies are fully mature and ready for harvesting.

Flammulina velutipes in a flowerpot with Ribes

The Velvet Shank mushrooms shown on the left and immediately below were found growing in plant pots in a nursery in Cornwall, England in January 2014. The pots contain a mixture of peat and woodchip, and it is on the woodchip that the mushrooms are feeding. These two remarkable pictures were taken by Jim Stephens, with whose kind permission they are shown here.

Distribution

From autumn through winter and into early spring, Flammulina velutipes is fairly common throughout Britain and Ireland; it also occurs in most parts of Mainland Europe, North Africa and Asia as well as in North America. Molecular research suggests the possibility that two or more species may be covered under the name Flammulina velutipes, in which case the distribution of individual species may not coincide with the whole of the range quoted here.

Side view of Flammulina velutipes, Velvet Shank, in a plant pot

Taxonomic history

This species was described by Moses Ashley Curtis (1808 - 1872), who called it Agaricus velutipes - in the early days of fungus taxonomy most gilled mushrooms were placed in a huge Agaricus genus, most of whose contents have since been redistributed to many other genera. Flammulina velutipes was moved to its present genus in 1947 by the German-born mycologist Rolf Singer. Deprecated synonyms include Agaricus velutipes Curtis, Gymnopus velutipes (Curtis) Gray, and Collybia velutipes Rea.

Etymology

The generic name Flammulina is a reference to the orange caps, which shine like 'little flames' in the winter sunshine. This mushroom's specific epithet is very understandable, because velutipes means 'with velvet legs', and that's exactly what the stems of these winter fungi look and feel like.

Identification Guide

Distorted caps of Flammulina velutipes on beech wood

Cap

2 to 10cm across and often distorted because of neighbouring caps in the cluster, the bright orange caps of Flammulina velutipes are generally somewhat darker towards the centre.

Slimy in wet weather, the caps dry to a smooth sheen.

Pileipellis of <em>Flammulina velutipes</em>

Pileipellis

The pileipellis (cap surface) is an ixotrichodermium of filamentous, often branched hyphal tips and occasional narrowly ventricose or hair-like pileicystidia (two of which, both noticeably capitate, are visible in the enlarged version of the image shown here).

(Mouseover image to view a larger version of this photomicrograph.)

Gills and stem of Flammulina velutipes - Velvet Shank

Gills

Adnate and broad, the gills of Velvet Shank fungi are white at first becoming pale yellow as the fruitbody matures. (The gills of cultivated fiorms of this mushroom usually remain white.)

Stem

The stem is tough and covered in a fine velvety down. Usually pale near the cap, the stems often turn brown towards the base.

Spores of <em>Flammulina velutipes</em>

Spores

Ellipsoidal, smooth, 6.5-10 x 3-4µm; inamyloid.

Spore print

White.

(Mouseover image to view a larger version of this photomicrograph.)

Odour/taste

Not distinctive.

Habitat

Velvet Shank fungi are saprobic on stumps and trunks of dead hardwood trees, especially Beech, and occasionally on diseased living trees.

Similar species

Kuehneromyces mutabilis, the Sheathed Woodtuft or Brown Stew Fungus, has a similar cap but darker gills and brown spores.

Culinary Notes

Flammulina velutipes provides the mushroom forager with something to look out for at a time of year (mainly December and January in Britain and Ireland) when the cold weather deters nearly all other edible fungi from fruiting. Although the stems are tough and best discarded, the caps of wild Velvet Shank mushrooms are quite highly prized and can be used to make mushroom soup as well as being very good in rissotto dishes. They must always be cooked, as applies to nearly all wild mushrooms. Extracts from this mushroom show exceptionally high anti-cancer activity, and an epidemiology survey of Flammulina velutipes (Enokitake) farmers in Japan found that the mushroom farmers had lower rates of cancer deaths than people who were not involved in mushroom farming.

Reference Sources

Flammulina velutipes - Velvet Shank, young fruitbodies

Fascinated by Fungi, Pat O'Reilly 2011

Dictionary of the Fungi; Paul M. Kirk, Paul F. Cannon, David W. Minter and J. A. Stalpers; CABI, 2008

Taxonomic history and synonym information on these pages is drawn from many sources but in particular from the British Mycological Society's GB Checklist of Fungi and (for basidiomycetes) on Kew's Checklist of the British & Irish Basidiomycota.

Treatment of cancer with mushroom products; Monro J A., Arch. Environ. Health. 2003 Aug; 58(8); pp533-537.

Acknowledgements

Some of the pictures on this page are shown with the kind permission of David Kelly.