Can Golf Balls Grow On Trees?

Although they resemble golf balls, this is actually the mushroom Cyttaria darwinii (Darwin’s fungus). Cyttaria darwinii grows in the southern tip of South America. It was collected and described by Charles Darwin. It’s edible and can grow in large quantities, with dozens of mushrooms fruiting from the same tree. Darwin said that it was “eaten by the Fuegians, in large quantities.”

Cyttaria darwinii © 2016 Giuliana Furci

Cytarria darwinii is an ascomyte, as are Morchella (Morels). As the C. darwinii  fruiting body matures, the white spots turn into dimpled tiny cups — apothecia. They serve the same function as the apothecia on the outside of Morchella (Morels).

Other Cyttaria species also grow in Patagonia. Some grow thousands of miles away in Australia and New Zealand. But they don’t occur in North America or anywhere else north of the Equator. Their closest Oregon relatives are ascomycetes in the class Leotiomycetes, for example: Bulgaria inquinans (black bulgar) and Chlorociboria aeruginascens (green stain fungus):

But they’re not close relatives. As shown in these charts, they’re like third cousins.

Cyttaria taxonomy tree © 2021 Joseph D. Cohen

Why is this relationship so distant? And why do Cyttarria grow thousands of miles apart in Patagonia and New Guinea, but not in Oregon? Cyttaria evolved over 80 million years ago. At that time Patagonia and Australasia were connected as part of Gondwana, and at about the same latitude. Cyttaria took its own evolutionary path, becoming an obligatory parasite (growing only on) of Nothofagus (Southern Beech), which were present in that area of Gondwana.

Gondwana — approximate Nothofagus range

Eventually, those areas — with their flora and fungi — drifted apart. So today, golf balls grow on trees in only a few, widely scattered locations, far from us.

Cyttaria current range © 2021 Joseph D. Cohen

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All photographs are from Mushroom Observer and licensed under a Creative Commons license.