Candlesnuff: Xylaria hypoxylon
With Christmas close by, it is appropriate to mention candles but this is not a real candle but a fungus that is supposed to resemble a spent candle wick. Because the upright, black fungus branches at the tips it is also called carbon antlers or, more rarely, though perhaps more graphically, dead man’s fingers. But back to facts.
This is a common fungus that grows on dead wood. It is a fungus that does not attack ‘raw’ wood but moves in once the wood has started to decompose. When it has finished it leaves the wood soft and spongy. Because of this it is common to see these black and white fruiting bodies pushing up through moss-covered stumps. Although it can grow on a wide range of trees, it is more common on broad-leaved trees and it is found throughout Europe and America. My specimen was on an oak barrel that was planted with conifers for many years and that had to be emptied.
The scientific name Xylaria is from ‘wood’ (xylem is a conducting tissue in stems) and hypoxylon means ‘below the wood’.
The name ‘candlesnuff’ is probably derived from the appearance of the fruiting part of the fungus but, apparently, it is also bioluminescent, not something that I noticed, and it is very faint. The bodies are single and club-shaped when young but they branch at the tips as they age and are covered in white. Although not officially poisonous, they are tough and woody and not very palatable though I am sure some chef will find a way to use them, probably in a trifle, eventually!
This pretty little fungus can be found all year round but is especially noticeable in autumn and winter and grows to about 4cm high. Some little twigs with candlesnuff perched on them would be nice with some dried leaves and cones to add to your Christmas decorations.