Nipple-bearing flower heads

Thellaphora anthocephala
Thelephora anthocephala


This branching form nestled in a bed of golden haircap moss (Polytrichum commune) is it a coral? No, it is actually the fungus Thelephora anthocephala a very terrestrial organism. There were about 40 of these fungi growing in the moss over an area of about 15 square feet back in September of this year. I had never seen this type of fungus before anywhere so naturally I was quite excited. Their resemblance to fungi in the genus Clavaria (coral fungus) is apparent but the relationship is distant.

The name Thelephora anthocephala is from four Greek words: thele (nipple), phora (bearing), antho (flower), and cephala (head). So it is the “nipple-bearing flower head” fungus. The nipple part of the name is in reference to the (usually) papillate (bumpy or nipple-like) surface of the spore producing organs found in most members of the genus.

Thelephora anthocephala is a leathery, fibrous fungus with numerous brown coral-like branching stalks (3 to 5 cm tall) from a short (1 to 1.5 cm) base. The ends of the branches are dark brown near the base, fuscous purple further up, becoming lighter near the ends which are flattened, spoon-shaped and whitened. Spores are produced at the branch tips.

The related T. palmata is similar looking but has a fetid odor. T. anthocephala is odorless and tasteless. I did the sniff test on several of them to be sure. Some Thelephora (Thelephora ganbajun, for example) are eaten although I do not know of anyone eating this or any other North American species so I didn’t do a taste test on these.

Kingdom: Fungi
Division: Basidiomycota
Class: Agaricomycetes
Order: Thelephorales
Family: Thelephoraceae
Genus and Species: Thelephora anthocephala

T. anthocephala is an ectomycorrhizal fungus found in forests.

Range and Distribution
T. anthocephala is widely distributed across the Northern Hemisphere.

References consulted
Barrett, C. F.; Freudenstein, J. V.; Taylor, D. L; and Kõljalg, U. (2010). Range Wide Analysis of Fungal Associations in the Fully Mycoheterotrophic Corallorhiza striata Complex (Orchidaceae) Reveals Extreme Specificity on Ectomycorrhizal Tomentella (Thelephoraceae) Across North America. American Journal of Botany 97(4): 628–643.

Burt, E. A. (1914). The Thelephoraceae of North America. Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden, Vol. 1: 185-229.

He, J.; Zhou, Z; Yang, H.; and Xu, J. (2011). Integrative Management of Commercialized Wild Mushroom: A Case Study of Thelephora ganbajun in Yunnan, Southwest China. Environmental Management 48:98–108.

Shiryaev, A. (2008). Diversity and distribution of thelephoroid fungi (Basidiomycota, Thelephorales) in the Sverdlovsk region, Russia. Folia Cryptogamica Estonica 44: 131-141.

Tedersoo, L.; Suvi, T.; Larsson, E.; and Kõljalg, U. (2006). Diversity and community structure of ectomycorrhizal fungi in a wooded meadow. Mycological Research 110:734-748.

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