South Africa's indigenous "Lion's mane" mushroom discovered - Hericium opheliea
This is my (Peter Herrmann's) story of the discovery of South Africa's indigenous "Lion's mane" mushroom named Hericium opheliea, commonly known as "Pom poms" or "White phantom".
The genus Hericium hosts multiple species of mushrooms with very special medicinal properties known to stimulate NGF (nerve growth factor) and BDNF (brain dereived neurotrophic factor) making them popular as "Smart mushrooms". Their ability to improve memory, learning and nerve function amongst a host of other benefits has taken Lion's mane and it's relatives into the mainstream of nootropic supplements.
This is a story of discovery and accidental citizen science that has fast tracked South African Mycology through the passionate curiosity and chance encounters of a mycophylic mushroom cultivator. This story and the memories I've made is dear to my heart...So where to begin? Let's start on January 4th, 2021, the day I saw Opheliea her for the first time ever.
01/04/2021 My first encounter
On this day in January after having spent some time in the Garden route on holiday, I was hiking with a big group of friends in the indigenous forests surrounding Wilderness area. We had gotten lost looking for a waterfall when suddenly a cluster of white lumps on a tree some 20 meters to my right caught my attention from the corner of my eye. I immediately recognized that I had seen something special. I rushed off the trail through dense forest, no longer carefully placing each barefoot step as I approached what I had already identified as something looking like Lion's mane. Later that afternoon I came to learn from conversations with peers that the local species of Hericium had been said to be Hericium coralloides - the Coral tooth mushroom. This Coral tooth mushroom is native to Austrailia and some parts of America. It's morphologically identical to Hericium opheliea so understandably it was assumed it must be what we had growing locally.
It is often the case here in Southern Africa that we assume similar looking mushrooms species to what is found in the west must be the same. In some cases they are, like the Porcini mushroom (Boletus edulis) a mycorrhizal fungus that was obviously introduced alongside it's alien host tree, Pinus pinaster, (Pine). But I stood firm in my theoretical understanding at the time that if South Africa has such a vast variety of novel plant species and ecological biospheres of afromontane forests, fynbos, shrubbery, bushveld etc unlike anywhere else in the world(at least the little bit that remains), how can we assume that the fungal mass that orchestrates every ecosystem are simply inherited from other continents and ecosystems around the globe? Surely we have to have our very own unique myco-biodoversity. It's this feeling that kept drawing me back to the forests looking for mushrooms.
I found it strange that such a beautifully photogenic medicinal mushroom had not featured in a single local field guide to this day. Not being able to find much information or documentation of the mushroom online or on any groups made it difficult for me to convince the skeptics amongst my friends who were present that day, that we foud something something special and that it was also a delicious edible mushroom.
Needless to say I harvested some to take back with me, no longer interested in locating the waterfall we originally set out to find. That night we dedicated a small portion towards the frying pan for the sake of experiencing what this wild mushroom has to offer in flavor. It was DELICIOUS! I remember going to bed that night with the same obsessive thought patterns that has often led me down rabbit holes of curiosity for months on end. There was no doubt in my mind, I was hooked. I had to know more.
I kept a large sample with the intentions to attempt "cloning" a tissue culture of this mushroom onto a petri dish back at my home-lab. This was in the days before owning a laminar flow hood or any fancy equipment. I managed to successfully clone this sample in what's know as a "still air box", an achievement only mushroom cultivators would understand is no easy task considering the sample came from the forest. Due to lack of experience of never having worked with this species before, I had no idea how to visually separate "clean" mycelial growth from what could easily have been a contaminant. The mycelium of this fungus looked nothing like what I've worked with before and nothing I could find online from other Hericium species had the same mycelium characteristics as what I had on my petri dish. I understood that different phenotypical expressions do exist so I decided to keep it in my culture library until further notice.
I eventually decided to move it onto a wood based substrate in an attempt to prove that I am in fact working with something that will grow on a low sugar and nitrogen food source mainly made up of cellulose and carbon. I found some success with this which gave me the confidence to keep working with the culture.
Months passed and it was the following summer we went out specifically looking for them and found MANY kilos worth of fresh mushrooms scattered around the Afromontane forests of the garden route. More samples were succesfully cloned in the "Bushlab"(A tool box with gear and a modified plastic tote box as a still air box) while at my friends house that was still being built at the time. The conditions were rough the say the least, but alas I had another successfully isolated tissue culture which expressed the exact same characteristics as the culture I had before. I now knew that I was on the right track and had a species of Hericium that was very much unique to our country.
The "bush lab" I cloned the second cultures in at my friend Hanno's house in Winderness.
It was during this season of hunting for Pom poms that my friends Michiel Grobler and Hanno Herselman joined us on expeditions. They helped me identify the tree species we found the Pom poms growing on. This helped me better understand where to look for them which lead to me gathering a lot of data on their ecology. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I was documenting the ecological data of an undescribed mushroom....
So as the weeks rolled on and I continued working with the cultures I've isolated of this Hericium species, the strange structure and nature of the mycelium on agar and wood-based substrate I decided to reach out to a friend about getting this species sequenced to see if it is in fact Hericium coralloides or something else. It turns out my friend, Elise le Roux also had a culture which she sent to a Taxonomy student working at Stellenbosch university and suggested I do the same. She introduced me the Breyten who had also found a particular interest in studying this fungus after coming across a specimen with his father in the same Afromontane forests in the Garden route that year.
More pictures taken in summer '21/'22
It took a while, which felt like forever until he sent me the DNA sequence results which confirmed that this was a unique and undescribed Hericium species indigenous to South Africa! We had stumbled on a never before documented species of Hericium. The second ever Hericium species on the African continent and the first ever in Southern Africa! Second only to a species found in the Cameroon rain forests, Heriucium bembedjaense. This is a feeling I can never describe with words alone. I am not ashamed to admit I shed a tear in that moment.
Here is a link to the paper published in Mycology: an international journal of fungal biology:
The months to follow was the co-authoring of the scientific paper describing and naming the newly discovered Hericium species. We decided to name her Hericium opheliea after the poem “Ophélie" by French poet Arthur Rimbaud. This is because phrases such as “long veils…a white phantom… beautiful as snow" seemed to be a fitting description for the cascading spines of the fruiting bodies found in the dappled-light of the Knysna forests.
About Harmonic Mycology
Harmonic Mycology continues to unfold as a long-term, multi faceted mycological venture for enhancing the health and vitality of humyn and ecological systems in the modern age through the development and application of mycelial-technologies and fungal medicines