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Quick facts

Common names: dead man’s fingers

Scientific name: Xylaria polymorpha

Family: Xylariaceae

Fruiting season: spring and summer, but can be found all year round. Old ones remain.

Habitat: they grow from stumps and buried deadwood of broadleaved trees, especially beech. Often seen poking up through moss and dead leaves.

What do dead man's fingers look like?

Macabre-looking clusters of hard, swollen, warty ‘fingers’, 3–8cm high. When young they are pale grey with a whitish tip. The pale covering is a coating of asexual spores produced in the early stage of their development. Inside, the flesh is white and tough under the black spore-bearing outer layer.

Fruiting bodies: finger-shaped, grey or brown, blackening with age, varying from 1–3cm.

Gills/spores: the spores are dark brown when developed, banana-shaped with a black spore print.

Stipe: a small stalk which attaches the fruiting ‘finger’ to the dead wood.

Not to be confused with: dead moll’s fingers (Xylaria longipes), which look similar but are daintier and less common. They are mainly to be seen on dead stumps and branches of sycamore.

Dead man's fingers

Credit: Stephen Iles / Alamy Stock Photo

Where to find dead man's fingers

They are fairly common in the UK, Ireland, mainland Europe and parts of North America.

Dead man's fingers

Credit: Dave Marsden / Alamy Stock Photo

Value to wildlife

Dead man’s fingers is a saprobic fungus specialising in consuming the polysaccharides in timber which leaves soft, nutrient-rich debris on which many invertebrates feed.

Dead man's fingers close-up

Credit: Richard Becker / Alamy Stock Photo

Uses of dead man's fingers 

In traditional Indian (Ayurvedic) medicine, this fungus is used dried, powdered and mixed with sugar to promote lactation after childbirth. Otherwise, they’re not considered edible.

Did you know?

The fingers vary in appearance at different stages of its lifestyle, hence its name polymorpha which means ‘many shapes’.