When I first started hunting mushrooms in North Carolina, I was awestruck by the diversity of fungi that fill our forests and fields. In particular, North Carolina is rich in Lepidella mushrooms, which is a section of the Amanita genus. Experts opine that there are likely more than 1,000 Amanita taxa worldwide, and I would be downright shocked if the genus’ species count is any lower than that.
For more information on the genus as a whole, check out this overview of the Amanitas. Also, Studies in the Amanitaceae is an excellent resource that’s well worth exploring if you want to get your head around the Amanita family, which includes the genera Amanita and Limicella.
I figured it would be worthwhile to explore the key morphological features of Lepidella mushrooms that are visible to the naked eye because they’re large macrofungi that are quite common in North Carolina and other eastern U.S. states. In fact, you can hardly avoid Lepidellas, even if you’re a bird watcher, hiker, mountain biker, or forest-friendly mycophobe. So strap on your mushroom taxonomy boots and let’s dive into an overview of Lepidella!
Yours In Fungal Fancy,
Lepidella, the Giant Mushrooms of Genus Amanita
Before I begin, I will state that Lepidellas aren’t always ginormous, but many of them are on the large side for mushrooms. If you’re breaking mushrooms up into size categories in your mind, I would place many Lepidellas in the “big honkin’ mushroom” bucket (along with chicken of the woods and its kin) because many of North Carolina’s common Lepidellas are the size of dinner plates or even hubcabs when they’re mature.
For more on the taxonomical issues surrounding Lepidella, see the section below. For the purposes of this post, I will be looking at the section Lepidella, as opposed to the sub-genus Lepidella, which contains mushrooms as varied and diverse as Amanita phalloides (commonly called the death cap mushroom) and Amanita franchetii, a lovely brown warted mushroom with a cream-and-yellow skirt on the stalk. Section Lepidella is challenging for mushroom identifiers of all experience levels and many of the species are not terribly well-defined, but they share a few common characteristics that make a basic field identification to Lepidella (sort of) straightforward.
Key Features of Lepidella Section Mushrooms
Cap Margin Appendiculate
One prominent feature of Lepidella that can be determined in the field is the flesh on the edge of the cap, which is appendiculate. Appendiculate simply means that there are bits of woolly or powdery material attached to the margin of the cap, although this material often wears or washes off as the mushroom matures.
Attached Warts on the Cap, White to Buff Flesh
Mushrooms in section Lepidella frequently have distinct warts on their caps that are a part of the overall cap tissue (although there are some with powdery, unattached warts that wash off as well). When evaluating Amanitas with warts, it’s important to check and see if those spots of flesh are protrusions of flesh that are part and parcel to the cap, or whether those warts are simply flecks of tissue that stick to the top of the cap.
A classic example of an Amanita with unattached warts is Amanita muscaria, which has a universal veil that bursts and leaves flecks of tissue stuck to the cap that are easily rubbed or washed off. If you’re curious, here’s a post about the historical use of Amanita muscaria from some time ago.
Lepidellas, on the other hand, typically have warts that look like pyramids or bumps that are completely a part of the overall cap. A majority of Lepidella mushrooms are white to cream or buff-colored.
(Frequently…But Not Always…) A Bulb at the Base of the Stem
Like all Amanita mushrooms, Lepidellas emerge from a universal veil, which is a layer of protective tissue that shields the baby mushroom during its infancy. All Amanitas have some sort of universal veil remnant when they mature, which is critical in their identification. In the case of Lepidella, the universal veil remnant often (but not ALWAYS!) looks like a bulb at the base of the stem, which is sometimes long and root-like (picture a small white sweet potato at the base of the stem and you’ll have an idea of what this looks like). In other Lepidella species (for instance Amanita abrupta), the bulb at the base of the stem is thick, chunky, and looks more like a turnip than a slender sweet potato.
Although this bulb feature is not a constant in the section and there are other sections of Amanita with mushrooms that have a bulb at the base, if you combine this feature with warts on the cap, a whitish to cream fruiting body, and bits of fluffy or powdery material on the margin of the cap, it’s entirely unlikely you’re holding anything other than a Lepidella mushroom.
Lepidella mushrooms are really cool-looking when they’re young, because the bulb at the base of the stem is often larger than the cap of the maturing mushroom itself, so it sort of looks like a lopsided dumb bell with warts on the exposed (cap) end of the mushroom. The bulb is usually super-visible, but nonetheless it’s important to dig up the entire specimen in order to aid in identification.
Smell, Gill Color, and Skirt on the Stem
Mushrooms in this section sometimes have a pretty foul odor that’s sort of chemical-icky. They have white to cream gills that are deep and blade-like, although some of them develop yellowed gill colors as they age and dry out. Also, Lepidella mushrooms have a ring on the stem that is often large, ornate, skirt-like, and even multi-layered (although the ring can wear off as the mushroom ages).
In general, Lepidella mushrooms are mycorrhizal (meaning that they grow in symbiosis with a plant or tree partner), but there are some that have a saprobic lifestyle, meaning that they’re decomposers who do not require a plant or tree partner and instead rely on nutrients absorbed from dead organic material. The saprobic Lepidellas are interesting to mycologists because decomposers are uncommon in the Amanita genus, and the existence of saprobic Lepidellas has given rise to theories that the section (from an evolutionary standpoint) is incredibly ancient.
Typically, North Carolina’s Lepidellas seem to favor pine, although I have found them growing near oak, beech, and tulip poplar on occasion (although in those instances it was not entirely clear to me what the host tree was). It’s certainly possible to find saprobic Lepidellas living in fields or grassy areas, but I have yet to encounter it myself and I normally find them in great abundance in mixed woods under loblolly pine.
Lepidella and Edibility
The Lepidella section contains both toxic and nontoxic species, but in general they’re not considered fit for consumption, and many of them have never been taste-tested. Those that are toxic can cause significant liver and kidney damage, and since we’re sort of out of the hunter-gatherer phase of mycophilia and into the taxonomical age of species discovery for the sake of scientific inquiry and a better understanding of forest ecosystems, a good number of them have never been tried.
The Lepidella Sub-Genus Versus the Lepidella Section
For reference, this post is dedicated to the section Lepidella, not the sub-genus Lepidella. Basically, section Lepidella is a smaller subdivision within the Amanita sub-genus Lepidella. Although this may sound confusing, it really isn’t if you can get past the identical nomenclature for the section and sub-genus.
All mushrooms in section Lepidella are members of the sub-genus Lepidella, but not all mushroom species in the sub-genus Lepidella are in the section Lepidella. Confused yet? Here’s a little more background.
One of the challenges of studying Amanita mushrooms is the number of species, species groups, and sub-species within the genus, and to help with the confusion, mycologists split the genus into 2 sub-genera, within which there are 8 major sections. Each section has distinguishing features and a “type species” that represents the overall gestalt of the section. The sub-genera of Amanita are called Lepidella and Amanita, based on whether or not the mushroom’s spores are amyloid.
Amyloid is a term to describe a black-blue staining reaction when a mushroom’s spores are exposed to iodine in Melzer’s Reagent or an iodine-compatible solution called Visikol. If an Amanita mushroom’s spores are amyloid, it’s in the Lepidella sub-genus, if it does not stain, it’s a member of the Amanita sub-genus. This microscopic distinction is not always a practical thing for casual mushroom hunters to look for, but fortunately, one can pretty easily distinguish the major sub-genera and sections of Amanita by looking at macroscopic features.
The sub-genus Lepidella contains 4 sections: Lepidella, Validae, Amidella, and Phalloideae. Sub-genus Amanita contains 3 sections: Amanita, Vaginatae, and Caesareae. The sub-genus contains about 400 species, at least for now, and there are just shy of 200 mushroom species in the Lepidella section, which makes this group of Amanitas iconic and significant in any discussion of the genus as a whole.
Lepidella Mushrooms in North Carolina – Seasonality and Identification
Lepidella species are extremely common and have a long season in North Carolina. Unlike some other our other Amanitas, for example the edible and choice Amanita jacksonii and other Caesar-type mushroom species, Lepidella species can be found throughout the late spring, summer, and into fall. Of course, not all of these mushrooms are the same species, but nonetheless, there are some Lepidellas that just keep cranking out fruiting bodies in spite of dry conditions and extreme changes in temperature.
In terms of evolution, mycologists believe that Lepidella represents one of the oldest forms of the Amanita genus, positing that other features (such as a cup or sac of protective tissue at the base of the stem) emerged later. Like many mushrooms in the Amanita genus, Lepidellas are very hardy mushrooms and can tolerate drought conditions better than many other fragile fungal species.
Concluding Thoughts on Lepidella: Admire, Don’t Eat
Although they’re sometimes spectacularly large and almost demand admiration, Lepidellas do not belong on the edible list, largely because their toxicity is unknown in a lot of instances and it’s challenging to discern one from another. Yet another reason not to trifle with this section when you’re looking for food is the unsettling and very real possibility that there are large numbers of Lepidella species that remain undiscovered and unnamed.
However, that doesn’t mean you should not spend lots of time admiring and taking great mushroom photographs of them! Due to their impressive size and other noteworthy features, they’re very striking and are sure to catch your eye when you take a walk in the woods!