Dead man’s fingers

On a stately winter day, a newly punctured path in the feral woods presents a curious sight: is that a glove, discarded, poking from the leaves? Surely another bit of blown debris to add to my bag of plastic trash, before the snow should cover it, trash and leaf alike.

Stopping, bending, looking close — how could a glove have blown this far, winding its way among the vines and woody stems, to find this sheltered spot beside a long-dead trunk of ash? Its fingers smugly upright, raised in tossed and tumbled triumph over summer’s rot and fallen, smothering leaves?

Glove met glove almost, until I pulled mine back. This was no man-made thing.

It lived a winter (no not really lived, persisted though, as dead things often do), unmoved by fall and thaw of snow, or sudden frost or sodden drench of dew.

Xylaria polymorpha, which goes by the common name Dead Man’s Fingers, is one of many species of fungi that feed on dead wood, and is most often found growing near the base of dead or dying trees.

Despite its widespread presence in much of Europe and North America, its common name is apparently so well-chosen that, unlike almost every other plant or fungus species I have researched, I did not find any other common names that compete with it. On the other hand, scientists seem to have been stumbling over themselves to name it, as they have assigned several different scientific names over the years: Sphaeria polymorpha, Hypoxylon polymorphumXylaria corrugataXylaria obovata, and Xylaria rugosa.

On encountering this strange sight, and seeing that it was apparently a growth of some kind and not a piece of man-made trash, my reaction was instant — I pulled out my phone and, instinctively, typed “Dead Man’s Fingers.”

I had no memory of having heard this term before, but its aptness kept a forgotten fact alive. Sure enough, this sight revived and justified some other wanderer’s fitting choice of name.

I left it be — as well I knew, its searching, pleading hand would beckon me back to the woods all winter, a redundant invitation to its lonely domain of litter, leaf and twig.

Photos and article Copyright 2021 by the author.

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