Helvella lacunosa Afzel. - Elfin Saddle

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

Helvella lacunosa - Elfin Saddle

Helvella lacunosa, the Elfin's Saddle, is rather morbid in its appearance, with both the stem and the cap in shades of leaden grey. This species seems to favour rich soil and burnt ground, against which as a background it is not at all conspicuous and so is easily missed.

These saddles are often so distorted that it is impossible not to feel sympathy for the poor elfin creatures reputed to ride on them - or enough, perhaps, to undermine any belief in elves.

Helvella lacunosa, Elfin Saddle fungi

Distribution

A fairly common find in Britain and Ireland, Elfin Saddle fungus occurs also throughout mainland Europe, from Scandinavia right down to the southern shores of the Iberian Peninsula. This species is also found in North America.

Taxonomic history

Elfin Saddle was first validly described and named scientifically in 1783 by Swedish naturalist Adam Afzelius, who called it Helvella lacunosa; this has remained its generally-accepted scientific name to this day.

Synonyms of Helvella lacunosa include Helvella scutula var. cinerea Bres., Helvella mitra L.Helvella sulcata Afzel.Helvella leucophaea Pers.Helvella subcostata CookeHelvella costata Berk., Helvella cinerea (Bres.) Rea, and Helvella lacunosa var. sulcata (Afzel.) S. Imai.

Helvella lacunosa, Elfin Saddle fungi, England

Etymology

Helvella is an ancient term for an aromatic herb.  The specific epithet lacunosa means 'having holes' and is a reference to elongated oval troughs in the surface of the fluted stems of these sombre woodland fungi.

Why is the common name Elfin Saddle? Why not Fairy, Pixie or Goblin Saddle, you may wonder. 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 swarthy saddle fungi in the dead of night.

Identification guide

Cap of Helvella lacunosa

Description

The saddle-shaped caps of Helvella lacunosa often have three or more contorted lobes. The cap edges join to the stem to form a multi-lobed inner chamber with several openings.

The smooth outer surface of the cap is dark grey and smooth; that surface bears the spores. The infertile inner surface is also grey but has a felty feel.

The longitudinally grooved stem is grey-brown and hollow, creating many inner chambers.

Typically 2 to 4cm across the cap; total height 4 to 10cm.

Asci of Helvella lacunosa

Asci

Asci are typically 340μm long x 16μm diameter. Each ascus contains eight spores.

 

Spores of Helvella lacunosa

Spores

Ellipsoidal, 15 - 19 x 10 - 13μm, hyaline.

Spore print

White.

Odour/taste

Not distinctive.

Habitat & Ecological role

On the ground among leaf litter in all kinds of woodland. Often found on burnt ground in woodland clearings.

Season

Summer and autumn.

Occurrence

Frequent in Britain and Ireland, Helvella lacunosa is found throughout mainland Europe; this ascomycetous fungus occurs also in North America..

Similar species

  1. Helvella crispa has a white cap a a fluted, broader stem with external grooves and internal hollow channels.
  2. Helvella elastica has a fawn or cream cap and a narrow, solid stem.

Helvella lacunosa, Elfin Saddle, in mossy scrubland with birch

Culinary Notes

Field guides that cover edibility as a topic generally state that Helvella fungi are 'edible but of poor quality'; however, it is well documented that some of these saddle fungi 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 species may contain carginogens. What's the point of taking risks for such a dubious gain?

Reference Sources

Fascinated by Fungi, Pat O'Reilly 2016.

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.

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.

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