Trembling, Glistening Witch's Butter

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Meet Tremella mesenterica, a bewitching blend of jelly, butter and intestines.

Growing on dead hardwoods of every variety, occurring in a broad latitudinal swath encircling the globe—from China to Sweden to the central Oregon coast, in temperate and tropical climes—the jelly fungus known as Tremella mesenterica, or “witch’s butter”, has perplexed people from time immemorial. It crops up seemingly at random and often in profusion, drying to a tangerine crust in warm weather only to revivify with the rain.

T. mesenterica’s disconcerting habit of sprouting directly from fence posts, door frames and other domestic woodwork lent the fungus something of a nefarious quality: Stricken human inhabitants imagined they were under the pall of a witch’s curse, and sought to lift the hex by pricking and draining the viscid fruiting bodies. Needless to say, this lancing did little to diminish the fungus, which simply rehydrated when the seasons occasioned it. For those inclined to superstitious beliefs, this Lazarus effect only deepened their despair.

The lurid wrinkles and folds of T. mesenterica bring to mind nothing so much as gobs of orange marmalade smeared across a fallen log, or perhaps apricot-flavored gummy candy molded into tiny brains. These delicious similes are perhaps tempered by the etymology of its name: Tremella comes from the Latin tremere, “to tremble”; mesenterica combines the Greek mesos, “middle”, and entero, “intestine”—so, trembling viscera. Not particularly appetizing stuff, yet the fungus and its relatives have long been used in Asian cuisine to thicken soups and even desserts.

T. mesenterica is in fact a parasite of a parasite, exploiting the efforts of other wood-decay fungi in the genera Peniophora and Stereus. All work in concert—if not outright competition at times—to degrade and decompose wood tissue, providing an essential counterpoint to the forests’ fecundity.