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Bear's Head Tooth

It’s mushroom Monday! As you know, I am not a mushroom expert. But I am working to learn more of our Island’s fungi and will share some of our more easily identified species over the fall. Today, I give you the stunning Bear’s Head Tooth (Hericium americanum).

Photo 1: Bear's Head Tooth (Hericium americanum) on PEI.

Bear’s Head is one of the Tooth Fungi. You’re likely familiar with mushrooms that have rounded caps and gills or pores underneath – think of the button mushrooms you buy commercially, or the King Boletes I profiled here ( Tooth Fungi have tooth-like spines rather than gills or pores. Some do have caps (I’ll have an example of that later in this series), but Bear’s Head doesn’t bother. Instead, it forms groups of spines hanging directly from a branch or tree, like a beautiful fungal waterfall. Like all fungi, the part you see is just the reproductive structure; the fungus itself is living inside the wood.

This fungus not only looks exquisite, it smells divine. Our sense of smell is closely linked to memory, and when I sniffed Bear’s Head Tooth I was instantly transported back about 40 years. My Mother and Grandmother used to make ‘Russian Tea’: a combination of tea, orange, cinnamon, and other warm spices. I hadn’t thought about that in decades, but this mushroom smelled exactly as I remember that hot drink.

Bear’s Head Tooth is considered a choice edible, but I was so awe-struck by its appearance and scent that I didn’t think to collect any for the kitchen (a mistake I didn’t repeat with the next species of Tooth Fungus I found – more on that later). There’s still lots of mushroom season left, and I’m optimistic I’ll find more to try.

This species can be found as a saprophyte (a decomposer of dead organic matter) on fallen or standing dead hardwood trees, or as a parasite (consuming living tissue) growing on wounds of live hardwoods. Fungi play a hugely important role in nutrient cycling, breaking down organic matter into forms that other living things can use; without them, a walk in the woods would be very different and much less pleasant!

Bear’s Head Tooth is a distinctive fungus that’s easy for a beginner like me to identify. Keep your eye out and you may spot this beautiful part of PEI untamed!

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