Tuesday 18 January 2011: The trees have ears
I imagine this will be a familiar sight to many: the wood ear, jelly ear or Judas' ear fungus growing on a dead elder branch. It's one of the early signs of the turning year when you suddenly notice that these rubbery little growths are swelling on decaying wood in damp hedgerows.
The Christian tradition is that Judas Iscariot hanged himself upon an elder tree (which has always seems a strange choice to me since elders are weak and brittle.) Hence the wood ear's Latin name Auricularia auricula-judae. Indeed, there is perhaps some sort of poetic justice in the fact that this fungus was recommended by early herbalists for "squinancies and inflammations in the throat: whereby it seemeth to have a mollifying and lenifying vertue." Infused in milk, it was used as a gargle, and being gelatinous, it probably soothed.
The Chinese cloud ear mushroom, which is a highly prized cooking ingredient, is a close relation. Although both have the property of shrivelling into a hard horny condition when dry, they can be re-constituted by soaking. The cloud ear has a delicate flavour while the wood ear, although edible too, is rather tasteless but adds crunch to a stir-fry.