- Xylaria polymorpha (Pers.) Grev. – Dead Man’s Fingers
- Reference Sources
- If You Find One Of These In Your Yard, Don’t Touch It And Try Not To Panic
- Meet the Writer
- The Sweet Taste of a Dead Man’s Finger
- Blue Bean, Blue Sausage Fruit, Dead Man’s Fingers
- What Is Dead Man’s Finger: Learn About Dead Man’s Finger Fungus
- What is Dead Man’s Finger?
- What Do Dead Man’s Fingers Look Like?
- Dead Man’s Finger Control
- What are Dead Man’s Fingers? Are the Dead Man’s Fingers fungus?
- Where are the Dead Man’s fingers found?
- Can we eat Dead Man’s fingers?
- Why does Xylaria Polymorpha look like a dead man’s Fingers?
- When do dead man’s fingers grow?
- Decaisnea fargesii: True Ghoul Blue
- Green Deane’s “Itemized” Plant Profile: Dead Man’s Fingers
Xylaria polymorpha (Pers.) Grev. – Dead Man’s Fingers
Mainly seen in summer and autumn, but some fruitbodies can usually be found throughout the year. Producing ascospores in autumn and early winter.
Xylaria longipes is similar but slimmer, smaller and less robust. Its fruitbodies are more obviously stalked clubs and they occur most often on the stumps and fallen branches of sycamore trees as well as beeches.
Above: Xylaria polymorpha, Cambridgeshire, England 2013.
Fascinated by Fungi, Pat O’Reilly 2016.
Dennis, R.W.G. (1981). British Ascomycetes; Lubrecht & Cramer; ISBN: 3768205525.
Breitenbach, J. & Kränzlin, F. (1984). Fungi of Switzerland. Volume 1: Ascomycetes. Verlag Mykologia: Luzern, Switzerland.
Medardi, G. (2006). Ascomiceti d’Italia. Centro Studi Micologici: Trento.
BMS List of English Names for Fungi
Dictionary of the Fungi; Paul M. Kirk, Paul F. Cannon, David W. Minter and J. A. Stalpers; CABI, 2008
Taxonomic history and synonym information on these pages is drawn from many sources but in particular from the British Mycological Society’s GB Checklist of Fungi and (for basidiomycetes) on Kew’s Checklist of the British & Irish Basidiomycota.
This page includes pictures kindly contributed by Andrea Aspenson and David Kelly.
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If You Find One Of These In Your Yard, Don’t Touch It And Try Not To Panic
Nature sure can be weird sometimes. From animals with funny mating habits and defensive behavior to plants that consume unlikely organisms for their nutrition (looking at you, Venus flytraps!), it seems anything is possible—and acceptable—when it comes to ensuring the survival of any species.
But there’s one organism in particular that’s stranger than anything you’ve seen before. They look a little bit like zombie hands clawing their way out of the dirt. Appropriately, they’re called dead man’s fingers, and their identity is somehow even creepier than their looks!
These might look like the fingers of the undead reaching up from the ground, but they don’t belong to a human—or a reanimated corpse—at all.
They’re actually part of a mushroom-like fungus that grows around dying trees or wood objects that stay in contact with the soil.
Dead man’s fingers are related to edible fungi like the morel and the truffle, except they’re completely inedible (yet non-toxic).
By the final stages of their lives, dead man’s fingers look like something your dog would leave in the yard., to put it bluntly. The only difference is that these stick straight up and down, so there’s no denying their identity!
More specifically, dead man’s fingers are the reproductive configuration of the fungus Xylaria polymorpha. Each “finger” has a tiny hole at the top where the fungus releases sexual spores. In their early stages, the fingers look blue with white tips. Later on, they darken entirely.
They usually develop around decaying wood or the bases of rotting or injured tree stumps, and they’ll grow anywhere from 1.5 to 4 inches tall. Sometimes they can cause black root rot. In all cases, however, the tree is already a goner by the time the fingers appear, as they only affect dead or dying trees.
Dead man’s fingers are attracted to dead apple, maple, beech, elm, and locust trees. They can appear around ornamental trees as well, like the kind of shrubbery used in landscaped yards.
When found, the first step to removing the fungus is identifying its source. Keep in mind that they could either be growing from the roots or the body of the tree.
Are the fingers growing on the trunk or roots of the tree? If they’re simply growing from the mulch beneath the tree, then the mulch can be removed and the fungus may be gone. Otherwise, there’s not much that can be done to save the tree. If a sick tree isn’t cut down, the rot can spread.
In their last stage of life, dead man’s fingers appear black. Affected apple trees may still produce small fruits, though they’ll usually die off quickly. Larger trees might show a more gradual decline.
Either way, these are deadly to anything they grow out of, and it’s important to pay attention.
Dead man’s fingers is also the name of a type of blue bean tree in China. This shrub is indigenous to places like Nepal, Bhutan, and northeastern India. The fingers themselves are really blue-hued, sausage-shaped fruit. Even though these fruits are actually edible, the plant is usually utilized as decorative or ornamental.
Yale Nature Walk
Although the fungal version of dead man’s fingers aren’t supposed to be ingested like their blue cousins in China, some people have tried to turn them into a culinary dish anyway.
If you’re crazy enough to try to cook them, it’s important not to eat ones that are too old or covered in spores. These will be best enjoyed raw and shaved over something warm. Still, you must be careful, because raw mushrooms are a bit of a challenge to digest!
Alan Bergo / Forager Chef
Despite some people’s attempts to cook dead man’s fingers, they mostly serve as a warning sign and represent the health of the land and trees on which they grow. To prevent further growth on the trees in your yard, avoid planting anything where dead man’s fingers have been observed.
The QI Elves / Twitter
Sometimes, dead man’s fingers are used to increase the acoustic properties of wood used to create violins. They are inoculated in the violin wood for a short time, which helps to decrease the wood’s density. The fungi is then killed with ethylene oxide so that it does not rot the wood in the end.
Andrew Khitsun / Wisconsin Mushrooms
Researchers have found that dead man’s fingers contain an effective antimicrobial compound that may be able to be used as a natural food preserve. That’s pretty interesting in itself, especially considering the fact that this fungus is mostly known in the United States as being deadly to trees!
Andrew Khitsun / Wisconsin Mushrooms
Imagine seeing this in the woods? Remember that this fungus is not so much the cause of the problem, but the result of it; it only appears when a tree has already begun to decay. Thankfully, it’s non-toxic, and you don’t need to fear if you ever stumble upon it in the woods!
Mushroom photographer Noah Siegel found what he identified as Xylaria polymorpha in Massachusetts. Credit: Noah Siegel/CC BY NC-SA via Mushroom Observer
It’s easy to see why the fungus Xylaria polymorpha might spook someone. It’s often evocative of dingy human digits reaching out from unknown depths beneath the forest floor, earning it the nickname “dead man’s fingers.” It sometimes grows as a single stem, but more frequently, two to five branches appear clustered together. Each “finger” can grow up to eight centimeters tall, though they’re usually stubbier, says Tom Volk, a biology professor who teaches mycology at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.
Despite its morbid appearance, X. polymorpha seems to be innocuous—at least to humans. It’s a wood decay fungus that grows alongside or on top of tree roots, and is commonly found east of the Rocky Mountains. (Volk adds that X. polymorpha appears to be be a member of what’s called a “species complex,” which entails a group of closely related species that are hard to tell apart.)
Asci in a X. polymorpha. Credit: Tom Volk
The fungus begins cropping up in the spring as whitish fruiting bodies that produce conidia, or asexual spores. Eventually the conidia flake off, and by autumn, the finger-like bodies turn bumpy and brown or black on the outside while remaining white on the inside.
A cross-section of one of the “fingers” at this mature stage would reveal a series of tiny, black, flask-shaped dots called perithecia embedded in the outer layer of tissue. Each perithecium contains a layer of spore-filled sacs called asci. To disperse these sexual spores, each ascus elongates one at a time into the outer tip of the perithecium until it’s exposed to the air, and then it shoots the spores out. It recedes after that, and another ascus begins growing toward the tip.
“So that has to happen for every one of the asci in there. It has to grow out individually to be able to disperse its spores to the outside,” Volk says.
This process can take a while. While many mushrooms live only a few days and disperse all their spores over the course of that time, “it can take several months or even years” for the X. polymorpha, Volk says. “This is to the advantage of the fungus; it’s a time-release mechanism that ensures that at least some of the spores will be dispersed during a favorable time”—that is, when conditions are wetter and more conducive to spore germination.
X. polymorpha isn’t considered edible—it’s hard and its texture is wood-like, Volk says. So if you’re out hunting mushrooms, it’s best to just wave to these fingers and pass on by.
Meet the Writer
About Chau Tu
Chau Tu is an associate editor at Slate Plus. She was formerly Science Friday’s story producer/reporter.
The Sweet Taste of a Dead Man’s Finger
If you get excited by exotic fruits, here’s one that adds a little ‘creep factor’ to the experience. Best of all, you can even grow it in your own garden in the UK and use it as a party trick to freak your friends!
The freaky fruit I am referring to here is kind of a secret delicacy. It’s been enjoyed for centuries by the Lepcha, the indigenous people of Sikkim, but outside its natural range the dead man’s finger is little known for its edible fruits. A member of the chocolate vine family (Lardizabalaceae), Decaisnea insignis is a shrub native to China, Nepal, northeast India (Sikkim), Bhutan, and Myanmar. At home in Asia it grows at altitudes between 900 to 3600 metres above sea level which is why it is frost-hardy in the UK where it is sometimes grown as an ornamental.
The greenish-yellow flowers of Decaisnea are between 3-6 cm in diameter and borne in drooping racemes. They come in separate male and female flowers but it is only the latter ones that give rise to Decaisnea’s most striking decorative feature, the very unusual finger-like blue fruits. About 7-12 cm long, soft to the touch and covered in an eerily skin-like peel, the fruit of Decaisnea does really feel like a cold human finger, hence it’s common name ‘dead man’s finger’.
The fruits of Decaisnea are borne in clusters of three and this has got an interesting reason. Normally you would expect one fruit per flower but in Decaisnea, each female flower contains three separate carpels (the three straight cylinders in the centre; see photo above). Because the three carpels are free from each other, after successful pollination, each one of them turns into a fruit of its own. Actually, ‘fruitlet’ would be the botanically correct term for one of these fingers, the diminutive indicating the origin of a triplet of ‘fingers’ from one flower.
Now comes the really interesting part. Almost as if opening with a zip, the fruits easily split along a straight line to reveal their translucent gelatinous pulp into which a large number of flat black seeds are embedded in two rows. The jelly-like pulp is the edible part, not the hard seeds. Having tasted my first dead man’s finger with great curiosity and excitement, I found its flavour very pleasant and subtle, mainly sweet, perhaps with a hint of melon or cucumber.
O.K. this is a bit nerdy but since I am a Seed Morphologist and information about the inner workings of the seed of a dead man’s finger is not something you can easily find anywhere else, I might as well… The seeds of Decaisnea insignis are about 1 cm long and about 3-4 mm thick. Inside the seeds bear a very small embryo embedded in copious nutritious tissue (endosperm) which the embryo consumes during germination.
When I come across such weird fruits like the dead man’s finger I always want to know how they are dispersed naturally. Offering a sweet edible pulp, the fruits of Decaisnea insignis are obviously meant to be eaten by some animal but which one? Little can be found in the literature about Decaisnea’s natural dispersers. However, the size of the fruit (too big for most birds in its native range) and the fact that it obviously requires peeling (a bit like a banana) to separate the edible pulp from the thick leathery peel suggests that animals with a good degree of ‘manual’ dexterity are the co-adapted dispersers of Decaisnea insignis. Indeed, the only information in the scientific literature I could find about potential dispersers is that in China (Yunnan & Szechuan), snub-nosed monkeys (Rhinopithecus spp., Cercopithecidae) include fruits of Decaisnea in their diet .
Whether snub-nosed monkeys are really the co-adapted dispersers of Decaisnea is hard to say because primates in general are intelligent and may learn to eat any fruit, even if is not ‘meant’ specifically for them. Also, this would not necessarily explain the fruits’ very unusual blue colour. Snub-nosed monkeys possess trichromatic vision like us humans and so the fruits could as well be some shade of red or yellow, which is a much more common fruit colour. If any readers would have more information towards solving the riddle of the natural disperser of Decaisnea, I would like to hear from them.
Some readers might be more familiar with the Latin name Decaisnea fargesii for the dead man’s finger. Indeed, on the basis of its blue fruits, D. fargesii from China (the most common form in cultivation) has been considered as a separate species from the Nepalese D. insignis with yellowish-green fruits. However, fruit colour alone is not considered a strong enough character to justify the separation into two species which is why some authors have combined both species into one, i.e. Decaisnea insignis (e.g. Flora of China, Mabberley’s Plant Book).
Danger! Don’t just eat any dead man’s finger!
Just to avoid any potentially dangerous confusion, it must be said that there are other species, unrelated and not all plants, commonly known as Dead Man’s (or Dead Men’s) Fingers, one of them deadly poisonous. Oenanthe crocata, a member of the carrot family (Apiaceae), is known under the common name ‘Hemlock Water-Dropwort’, but is also sometimes called ‘Dead Men’s Fingers’ (on account of the shape of its tubers). All parts of this plant are poisonous and occasionally lead to fatalities. Looking similar to Cow Parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris) or Comon Hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium), it should be hard to confuse Oenanthe crocata with Decaisnea insignis. However, since Oenanthe crocata is deemed one of the most poisonous plants in Britain, a word of warning seems appropriate here. After all, as my colleage Steve Davis pointed out, in recent years Kew has received frequent enquiries concerning Oenanthe crocata, including a case of someone being admitted to A&E, and several cases of livestock or pet poisonings. Other ‘Dead Man’s Fingers’ are Xylaria polymorpha (a fungus), Alcyonium digitatum (a species of soft coral) and Codium fragile (a seaweed).
Blue Bean, Blue Sausage Fruit, Dead Man’s Fingers
Average Water Needs; Water regularly; do not overwater
Sun to Partial Shade
Grown for foliage
Provides Winter Interest
10-12 ft. (3-3.6 m)
12-15 ft. (3.6-4.7 m)
8-10 ft. (2.4-3 m)
USDA Zone 6a: to -23.3 °C (-10 °F)
USDA Zone 6b: to -20.5 °C (-5 °F)
USDA Zone 7a: to -17.7 °C (0 °F)
USDA Zone 7b: to -14.9 °C (5 °F)
USDA Zone 8a: to -12.2 °C (10 °F)
USDA Zone 8b: to -9.4 °C (15 °F)
USDA Zone 9a: to -6.6 °C (20 °F)
USDA Zone 9b: to -3.8 °C (25 °F)
USDA Zone 10a: to -1.1 °C (30 °F)
USDA Zone 10b: to 1.7 °C (35 °F)
Where to Grow:
Unknown – Tell us
Unknown – Tell us
Unknown – Tell us
Late Spring/Early Summer
Unknown – Tell us
Soil pH requirements:
6.6 to 7.5 (neutral)
7.6 to 7.8 (mildly alkaline)
From seed; direct sow outdoors in fall
From seed; winter sow in vented containers, coldframe or unheated greenhouse
Remove fleshy coating on seeds before storing
Properly cleaned, seed can be successfully stored
This plant has been said to grow in the following regions:
Vancouver, British Columbia
Scientific name: Xylaria polymorpha
Common name: Dead Man’s Fingers
(Information for this species page was gathered in part by Justin Vogini (Spring 2001) and Steven Powell (Spring 2004) for Biology 220W at Penn State New Kensington)
Xylaria polymorpha is a very distinctive species of fungus that is widely distributed throughout the deciduous forests of North America and Europe. The scientific name tells us a great deal about the organism: “xylaria” means to grow on wood (it is found on and in a wide variety of dead and decaying wood), and “polymorpha” means “many shapes” which describe this species’ highly variable fruiting body (“mushroom”) which resembles human fingers or hands.
Xylaria polymorpha is a saprotrophic fungus that is found colonizing dead wood. Trees that are under stress (from disease, moisture deprivation, light stress, etc) may also be “attacked” by X. polymorpha. The impact of this species on the dead or dying wood is best described as a “soft rot” (the fungus digests the available polysaccharide “glues” within the wood leaving behind the unconnected lignins and celluloses). The precise tree species favored by X. polymorpha are often difficult to determine since the colonized wood quickly reaches an advanced stage of decomposition which makes it difficult to identify with any precision. However, the habitat distribution of the fungus suggests a preference especially for maple and beech trees and also oak, locust, sassafras, elm, and apple. Fungal colonization of living trees is most often seen through bark lesions (especially on the base of the tree trunk) and in damaged roots with the subsequent development of root rot. A variety of ornamental and urban landscape trees have been shown to be affected by X. polymorpha root rot.
The mycelia of X. polymorpha grow throughout the colonized wood and, like all fungi, secrete an array of extracellular digestive enzymes into the woody material. The mycelia then absorb the digestion products to fuel and sustain their growth and reproduction. The fruiting bodies (“mushrooms”) that are formed by these mycelia are at maturity 2 to 8 cm tall and 0.5 to 3 cm in diameter. They often grow in groups of three clustered into a “finger-like” or “hand-shaped” form which are typically seen emerging from the soil around stumps or decaying trees.. The fruiting bodies are dark gray to brown in color and get darker as they age and mature. They are coated with a carbon-like crust which greatly reduces their palatability and increases their strength and durability. These fruiting bodies arise in the spring (they are seen in mid to late May along the Nature Trail) but may form anytime between May and November depending upon local site conditions. These fruiting bodies may persist for several months or even years and can release spores continuously during these time intervals. This fruiting body persistence and slow, extended spore release strategy is quite different from most fungi which rely on a very transient mushroom stage and an explosive, short-lived spore release pattern for propagation. It is thought that the extended time frame and slower spore release rate for X. polymorpha increases the individual success rate of spores and allows this species to distribute itself extensively throughout its ecological range.
What Is Dead Man’s Finger: Learn About Dead Man’s Finger Fungus
If you have black, club-shaped mushrooms at or near the base of a tree, you may have dead man’s finger fungus. This fungus may indicate a serious condition that needs your immediate attention. Read this article for dead man’s finger facts and tips for handling the problem.
What is Dead Man’s Finger?
Xylaria polymorpha, the fungus that causes dead man’s finger, is a saprotrophic fungus, which means that it only invades dead or dying wood. Think of saprotrophic fungi as natural sanitation engineers that clean up dead organic matter by breaking it down into a form that plants can absorb as nutrients.
The fungus shows a preference for apple, maple, beech, locust and elm trees, but it can also invade a variety of ornamental trees and shrubs used in home landscapes. The fungus is the result of a problem rather than the cause because it never invades healthy wood. On trees, it often begins in bark lesions. It can also invade damaged roots, which later develop root rot.
What Do Dead Man’s Fingers Look Like?
A dead man’s finger “plant” is actually a mushroom. Mushrooms are the fruiting bodies (reproductive stage) of fungi. It is shaped like a human finger, each about 1.5 to 4 inches tall. A clump of the mushrooms looks like a human hand.
The mushroom arises in spring. It may be pale or bluish with a white tip at first. The fungus matures to dark gray and then black. Trees infected with the disease show a gradual decline. Apple trees may produce a large number of small fruit before they die.
Dead Man’s Finger Control
When you find dead man’s finger, the first thing you want to do is determine the source of the growth. Is it growing from the trunk of the tree or the roots? Or is it growing on the mulch at the base of the tree?
Dead man’s finger growing on the trunk or roots of a tree is very bad news. The fungus breaks down the structure of the tree quickly, causing a condition known as soft rot. There is no cure, and you should remove the tree before it becomes a hazard. Infected trees can collapse and fall without warning.
If the fungus is growing in hardwood mulch and is not connected to the tree, removing the mulch solves the problem.
There are different kinds of fungi. This particular kind, the saprobic fungus, derives its nutrients from dead plants or tree barks. The Xylaria Polymorpha look like crooked fingers with yellowish nails, hence the name, Dead man’s fingers. Creepy!
What are Dead Man’s Fingers? Are the Dead Man’s Fingers fungus?
Dead man’s fingers are fungi. They are better known by their scientific name, Xylaria Polymorpha. The dead man’s fingers are a special type of fungi known as saprobic fungi. This type of fungi derives its nutrition only from dead and decaying matter. Mushrooms are the reproductive stage of fungi. The Xylaria Polymorpha achieves its signature dead fingers look at this stage.
Thus, the dead man’s fingers are commonly found across the forests floor. They show affinity to growing on decaying organic matter. So they are found in areas where dead tree stumps have fallen. Or in areas where dead roots are found.
They usually grow in clumps and clusters. When a few of these are clumped together, they can give the appearance of a dead person’s hand rising from the earth. Hence, the name.
They can be invasive at times, forming colonies around decaying matter. The dead man’s fingers do not grow on healthy trees.
Where are the Dead Man’s fingers found?
They are pretty common on the forest floors of Britain, Ireland and many parts of North America. Like other fungi, they grow in areas where the temperature-moisture combination is apt for the growth of fungus. This fungus has also shown an affinity for growing on the dead and decaying matter of Apple, Maple, Elm, and Beech trees.
Can we eat Dead Man’s fingers?
No, the dead man’s fingers are inedible.
Why does Xylaria Polymorpha look like a dead man’s Fingers?
The most amazing fact of this fungus is its shape. Polymorpha translates to ‘many forms’. There are over 100 different varieties of the dead man’s fingers. They differ in size, color, location, and spread. Before they mature, they are pale or bluish in color with white tips. They grow long and straight and up to 4 inches tall. The white tips, combined with the clustered growth and their shape, give them look that strongly resembles cold, arthritic fingers. As the fungus matures, it develops a darker color, which makes them even scarier.
When do dead man’s fingers grow?
They mostly grow in the spring season.
Mushrooms are delicious, they’re a great source of vitamin B, niacin and riboflavin, but some fungi are deadly when ingested and many look wicked creepy when you see them growing in the wild.
The mushrooms known as “Dead Man’s Fingers” (Xylaria polymorpha) look like zombies clawing their way out of their graves, which is a fitting look for a killer ‘shroom:
“Dead Man’s Fingers” are unsurprisingly as bad as they sound. And not because ingesting them will result in a long strange trip, but because the appearance of this fungus at the base of a tree means that it is quite literally breaking down the structure of the tree which results in soft rot. In other words, Dead Man’s Fingers (aka Xylaria polymorpha) are tree-murdering mushrooms though it is said that they are edible. Good luck with that.
“Dead Man’s Fingers” are pretty creepy but not as gross and disturbing as this monstrosity:
The Hydnellu peckii is called the “Bleeding Tooth” mushroom for obvious reasons, and yet despite its icky appearance these mushrooms contain a useful chemical called atromentin:
The Bleeding Tooth secretes a dark red liquid which as you may have guessed, makes it appear to be “bleeding.” The non-toxic fungus is quite useful as it possesses the naturally occurring chemical, atromentin which is said to work quite well as an antibacterial and anticoagulant. (It’s a dessert topping and a floor wax.)
And to finish off the zombie mushroom menagerie we have the Gyromitra esculenta, or “Brain” Mushroom, because what are zombies if not lovers of fresh brains?:
Gyromitra esculenta or “Brain” mushroom is somewhat common fungus, and highly toxic. But that doesn’t stop people from eating them despite the risks associated with ingestion that include vomiting, diarrhea, tremors, dizziness and sometimes (though rarely) coma and death. Brain mushrooms are quite popular in Finland and are sold with extensive warning labels because even boiling them in water will causes the chemical gyromitrin (the stuff that might kill you in a Brain mushroom) vaporize which can make you sick just by breathing too much of it. Yikes
See Fungus From HELL: Messed Up Mushrooms That Look Like Boners, Brains & Zombie Fingers here
Dead Man’s Fingers! Those sound like something from our worst nightmare! Dead Man’s Fingers..ahh..yes! Those creepy, grey and shriveled digits that come crawling after us as we, for some reason, have become paralyzed with fear and cannot run! Those fingers that are no longer attached to any hand or body but still have a life of their own and those same ones that have ill intent in our dreams. Zombie fingers! No? Well, perhaps these are just some prop from an old Abbott and Costello movie. Some Egyptian mummy’s fingers are chasing Bud and Lou around a haunted museum! Bud and Lou must defeat the fingers before solving the mystery of the missing jewels of some pharaoh! Dead Man’s Fingers! I do believe many a story could be written with that as a title!
Dead Man’s Fingers or gills of a crab can be clearly seen once the carapace or shell is removed.
Actually, the Dead Man’s Fingers were found in my kitchen this morning and I do not live in some haunted museum! Nor did these fingers chase me or scare me in the least! Dead Man’s Fingers are organs found in Blue Crabs. To be a bit more precise, these “fingers” are the gills of the crab. They are elongated, spongy-looking organs that enable the crab to filter air from the water. Their name comes from the shape and appearance. Being slightly grey, shriveled and long, they actually do resemble the fingers of a dead human…if you have a great imagination! As a matter of coincidence, there are five on each side of the crab! The Dead Man’s Fingers are located right below the carapace or hard upper shell of the crab. Once that is removed, these gills are the most prominent feature of the body of the crab. They sit there in all their glory just waiting to scare the bejeebies out of some poor soul! Not really..most folks who eat crabs are fully aware of what they will see once that shell is removed! Although, some folks do believe that these organs are poisonous and will kill you if you eat them. This is erroneous and probably just derived from the said appearance of the gills. Although, I have not tasted them (they look yucky to me!), others have and say they taste as yucky as they look! Perhaps that to has lent some bearing on the myth that they are toxic. These are part of the crab that one discards when picking or eating!
Blue Crabs with their..ummm..blue and green hues.
Just to throw another interesting fact about crabs at you..since I have been bombarding you with excessive crab lore..Blue Crabs do turn red when cooked! Most know this but some do not realize why! It has to do with pigments in the crabs shells. The red pigment is wrapped in proteins which give it the dark coloring. When heated the protein “unravels” ( for lack of a better term) and the red color that is underneath becomes visible. Heat destroys the darker bluish or greenish pigments leaving behind the bright red! Although this change is definitely related to heat, it is not a test for “doneness”! Crabs and all seafood should be thoroughly cooked! That brings me to another point! Most folks do overcook their seafood! With Blue Crabs “doneness” has nothing to do with safety! That safety all comes with cooking live crabs! Never use dead crabs as bacteria forms rather quickly on seafood and I am sorry to tell you, that is what makes people sick! Live Blue Crabs can be plopped in boiling water, the water returned to a full rolling boil and cooked within six to ten minutes depending on the size of the crab! Each of those shells sort of turns into a mini pressure cooker and will fully cook an average size crab in just minutes. The importance of having that crab live and the water in a full boil cannot be stressed enough but time wise ten minutes is usually enough!
The same Blue Crabs boiled and showing their “redness”!
Ok..so now I have ventured far from the original theme of this post! To summarize..Dead Man’s Fingers are not movie props or zombies..are not poisonous..and taste lousy! Dead Man’s Fingers are not fingers at all but are gills. Crabs change colors due to heat demolishing certain proteins. Never use a dead crab..it will make you ill. Always keep the water boiling but never overcook your crab! Also, never miss a chance to view an Abbott and Costello movie..that is pure entertainment!
Dead Man’s Fingers, Decaisnea fargesii
Decaisnea fargesii: True Ghoul Blue
There are three Dead Man’s Fingers: A seaweed, a mushroom, and a shrub, all so-called because of the way they look.
Young Decaisnea fargesii
The seaweed, covered elsewhere on this site is Codium fragile. Soft and velvety, it floats eerily like a hand, and is edible, as are most seaweed. The mushroom, Xylaria polymorpha, like most mushrooms, is not edible. When young it not only looks like fingers reaching out of the ground but it even has fingernail-like tips. The third Dead Man’s Fingers is Decaisnea fargesii, an up and coming and escaping ornamental shrub.
This is a frost-hardy shrub that likes cooler weather and is native to the Himalayas and Western China where it can be found from 6,000 to 10,000 feet. In the United States it is found in zones 6 to 10, or down to about -10° F. You can find it in landscaping in such diverse locales as Kentucky and Ohio to Oregon and Washington. It is also escaping into the wild. It’s main calling as an ornamental is that it has blue, edible, fruit. Other than the fruit, to a North American eye the shrub resembles a small black walnut
Dead Man’s Digits
Whether there are one or two species of Desaisnea is a bit of a debate. Some say the D. fargesii is from China with the blue fruit, and others say there is a Decaisnea insignis from Inida with yellowish fruit. The Chinese one, D. fargesii, is the most commonly cultivated and thus escaped into the countryside. Oddly, it is in the chocolate vine family, Lardizabalaceae. The fruit’s white, juicy phlegm-like pulp, ranges from bland to very sweet. The watermelon-like seeds are not eaten.
The genus name is no help at all in identification. Decaisnea ( deh-KANE-ee-uh) is named for Joseph Decaisne, a 19th century Belgian-born French botanist, horticulturist, and director of the Jardin des Plantes Paris. The species fargesii (far-GHEE-zee-eye) was “discovered” and named for Pere Paul Guillaume Farges (1844-1912) a French missionary and plant collector who lived in China. I always have a problem with a westerner “discovering” a plant. The locals there had been eating or using it for thousands of years.
Don’t eat the seeds
Insignis is often translated to mean remarkable or outstanding but the more accurate Latin use would be “uncommon.” Insignis virtus was a common phrase meaning uncommon valor. It is said two ways, in-SIG-niss or IN-sig-niss. The D. fargesii is also called Blue Sausage Fruit, Blue Cucumber Shrub and Blue Bean Tree. And if you are wondering, Lardizabalaceae is said lahr-dee-zab-uh-LÂ-see-ee.
Oh, and to add to the fun, the fruit ripens around halloween.
Green Deane’s “Itemized” Plant Profile: Dead Man’s Fingers
IDENTIFICATION: Decaisnea fargesii: A deciduous shrub to small tree, growing to 25 feet tall. Leaves are pinnate to three feet long, with 13-25 leaflets, each leaflet up to six inches long and four inches wide. Blossoms are produced in drooping panicles to 18 inches long, each flower greenish-yellow, to an inch in diameter, with six sepals and no petals. The fruit is a soft greenish-yellow to bluish pod-like follicle to four inches long and and inch in diameter, filled with an edible transparent glutinous jelly-like pulp with numerous flat black watermelon-like seeds, up to a half inch in diameter.
TIME OF YEAR: Flowers in summer, fruits in September to October depending upon the climate.
ENVIRONMENT: Full sun, rich soil, neither very hot or very cold.
METHOD OF PREPARATION: Jelly-like pulp eat raw out of hand