Helvella vespertina — Western elfin saddle

Card image cap

Western elfin saddle2, photograph by Ludovic Le Renard

Odour: None.
Cap: 2.5–5(–12) cm in diameter, 2.5–5.5(–15) cm high, with three lobes. These lobes become convoluted and brain-like with age, often with one lobe hanging down. The lobes' surfaces are smooth and they are often attached to the stem in one or more places. The colour of the outer surface of the lobes may be light or dark grey, or brownish. The inner lobe surface is light to dark grey.
Stem: Up to 25 cm long and up to 20 mm wide. The stem is cylindrical, with sharp-edged lengthwise ribs and holes. Cross sections show that the stem has one or more hollow chambers. The colour is white, often becoming grey in age, and sometimes ochre-yellow in lower part.
Ring or veil: None.
Cup: None.
Spores: 16–21 x 10–12.5 µm, smooth, white.
Habitat: On the ground, growing with coniferous trees, such as Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), and pines (Pinus spp.); ectomycorrhizal.
Geographic distribution: In western North America from southern California on the coast and in the mountains, northwards into BC, Rocky Mountains4. Occasionally, it has been collected from eastern North America4,5. As the species was named and described in 20133, the full range of the species remains to be discovered.

The western elfin saddle was known under the name Helvella lacunosa, a species shown by DNA sequence analysis to be common in Eurasia and rare in eastern North America3. The common western species, growing in fall with conifers is now called H. vespertina. A rarer species, the oak-loving elfin saddle, Helvella dryophila occurs from southern British Columbia to southern California and fruits in spring. It differs subtly from H. vespertina, having, for instance a darker more compact cap, and a whiter stem. Other very similar-looking species in the mountains of western North America are still nameless.

Helvella elastica has a saddle-shaped cap and a slender, smooth stem. Gyromitra infula with its three lobes like a pirate’s hat, looks like a Helvella, but always grows on conifer wood. Gyromitra infula has a brown cap, and a purplish brown stem. Other Gyromitra species have brown, convoluted brain-like caps. Gyromitra species contain the unstable chemical gyromitrin that is hydrolyzed to highly toxic monomethylhydrazine.

The western elfin saddle is often covered and parasitized by Hypomyces cervinigenus, a white mold that turns pale orange-pink with age. Another parasite, Clitocybe sclerotoidea forms its fruitbodies out of colonized misshapen and aborted western elfin saddle fruitbodies.

Coppery pax

Western elfin saddle parasitized by Hypomyces cervinigenus6, photograph by Ludovic Le Renard.

Not edible. 'Chewy and bland' according to Arora, 19867; possibly because they do not taste good, Helvella species have only rarely been reported as causing illness8.

Treatment: Contact your regional Poison Control Centre if you or someone you know is ill after eating elfin saddles. Poison centres provide free, expert medical advice 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If possible, save the mushrooms or some of the leftover food containing the mushrooms to help confirm identification.

Poison Control:
British Columbia: 604-682-5050 or 1-800-567-8911.
United States (WA, OR, ID): 1-800-222-1222.

UBC. University of British Columbia Herbarium Database, <http://bridge.botany.ubc.ca/herbarium/database.php> accessed February 1, 2018.

Specimen Helvella vespertina UBC F32039 MO 181346, GenBank #KX236131.

Nguyen, N. H., Landeros, F., Garibay-Orijel, R., Hansen, K. & Vellinga, E. C. The Helvella lacunosa species complex in western North America: cryptic species, misapplied names and parasites. Mycologia 105, 1275-1286, doi:10.3852/12-391 (2013).

MyCoPortal. Mycology Collections Portal, <http://mycoportal.org/portal/collections/harvestparams.php> accessed February 2018.

Skrede, I., Carlsen, T. & Schumacher, T. A synopsis of the saddle fungi (Helvella: Ascomycota) in Europe - species delimitation, taxonomy and typification. Persoonia 39, 201-253, doi:10.3767/persoonia.2017.39.09 (2017).

Specimen Hypomyces cervinigenus UBC F23898, GenBank #KJ146714.

Arora, D. Mushrooms Demystified. Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, California (1986).

Beug, M. W., Shaw, M. & Cochran, K. W. Thirty-plus years of mushroom poisoning: Summary of the approximately 2,000 reports in the NAMA case registry. McIlvainea 16, 47-68 (2006).