Helvella crispa (Scop.) Fr. - White Saddle

Phylum: Ascomycota - Class: Pezizomycetes - Order: Pezizales - Family: Helvellaceae

Helvella crispa, White Saddle, Wales, UK

Helvella crispa is one of several 'saddle fungi' that appear in forests, particularly beside footpaths. They are easily overlooked among fallen leaves in dim light, but on bright days these brilliant lighthouse-like fungi are very easy to spot.

Distribution

Common in Britain and Ireland, particularly in Beech woodlands, Helvella crispa occurs throughout mainland Europe and is also recorded from many parts of North America.

Helvella crispa, White Saddle, Wiltshire, England

Taxonomic history

In 1772 when Giovanni Antonio Scopoli described this woodland mushroom he gave it the binomial scientific name Phallus crispa. This suggests that Scopoli considered it to be a close relative of the stinkhorns such as Phallus impudicus. It's not, of course, because stinkhorns are basidiomycetes and the White Saddle is an ascomycete fungus. It was the great Swedish mycologist Elias Magnus Fries who in 1822 transferred this species to the genus Helvella, renaming it Helvella crispa.

Synonyms of Helvella crispa include Helvella mitra Bolton, and Phallus crispus Scop.

Etymology

Helvella is an ancient term for an aromatic herb. The specific epithet crispa comes from Latin and means curled or wrinkled - a reference to the contorted cap or saddle of this woodland fungus.

Mushrooms in this genus are sometimes referred to as Elfin Saddles, and you may wonder why not Fairy, Pixie or Goblin Saddles, for instance. American mycologist Michael Kuo offers a plausible answer when he reminds us that the original name that Elias Magnus Fries provided for the genus was Elvella rather than Helvella - so perhaps elves really do ride on these woodland fungi in the dead of night.

Identification guide

Helvella crispa cap and stem

Fruitbody

The saddle-shaped cap may have two or three major undulations and many minor curled contortions. The upper surface is smooth and cream or occasionally pinkish or pale ochre; the underside is pale ochre and slightly downy.

The upward tapering stem is white and ornately furrowed or fluted; it is hollow and has thin, elastic flesh.

This species is very variable in size. The cap is typically 3 to 8cm across and 1 to 4cm tall; the stem is 2 to 4cm in diameter and 4 to 8cm long.

Asci of Helvella crispa

Asci

Typically 300 x 18μm. Each ascus contains eight spores.

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Spores of Helvella crispa

Spores

Ellipsoidal, 18-20 x 10-13µm; hyaline.

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Spore print

White.

Odour/taste

Faint odour; no distinctive taste.

Habitat & Ecological role

Believed to be mycorrhizal, under broadleaf trees, particularly beech and oak, and very often beside well-trodden paths.

Season

Summer and autumn.

Similar species

Helvella elastica has a tough, smooth stem without channels.

Helvella lacunosa has a grey-brown or black cap.

Helvella crispa, White Saddle, West Wales

Culinary Notes

Field guides that cover edibility as a topic generally state that Helvella crispa is 'edible but of poor quality'; however, it is well documented that White Saddles can cause stomach upsets unless very thoroughly cooked, at which point they tend to lack both texture and taste.

There is also concern that Helvella fungi may contain carcinogens. What's the point of taking risks for such a dubious gain?

Helvella crispa, White Saddle, Somerset, England

Acknowledgements

This page includes photographs that are shown with the kind permission of James Cook and David Kelly.

Reference Sources

Pat O'Reilly (2016) Fascinated by Fungi; First Nature

Dennis, R.W.G. (1981). British Ascomycetes; Lubrecht & Cramer; ISBN: 3768205525.

Breitenbach, J. & Kränzlin, F. (1984). Fungi of Switzerland. Volume 1: Ascomycetes. Verlag Mykologia: Luzern, Switzerland.

Medardi, G. (2006). Ascomiceti d'Italia. Centro Studi Micologici: Trento.

British Mycological Society (2013). English Names for Fungi

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.

Other web pages about this species

Roger Phillips (UK)

Michael Kuo (USA)

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