January 14th, 2021
By Rachel Floyd, CUH Design+Restoration Project Manager
I am less than fond of cold weather and would prefer to migrate or hibernate through the winter, but my partner finds chill air and snow invigorating and occasionally brings home interesting souvenirs from his wintertime forays. My current favorite is a small fallen branch covered in Schizophyllum commune (common split-gill mushroom) fruiting bodies. They fit in well with a wintery scene, with little white caps that look like they are sporting hoar frost and gill-like folds arranged to resemble starbursts of ice on glass.
I have now spent a lazy Sunday afternoon learning all that I can from the mushroom books in my possession, as well as online about Schizophyllum commune. Here are some highlights from my casual investigation.
Common split-gills are one of the most widespread mushroom species in the world. (Thus the species name commune, meaning common). One of the notable reasons for this is that they have more than 28,000 distinct sexes or mating types. This necessitates non-sibling mating and thus ensures incredible genetic diversity and resilience.(1) Split-gills are edible, in spite of this American guidebooks often list them as inedible or their edibility is unknown, and are considered a valuable commodity in some areas of the world (notably Asia and India). They are also medicinal. Studies have shown that Schizophyllum commune extracts and compounds have antimicrobial and antioxidant properties, and a polysaccharide that they produce called Schizophyllan shows promise in treating cancer. Further, they could help us clean up some of our biggest messes. The United States Department of Energy (2) cites research claiming that Schizophyllum commune could be used for the bioremediation of uranium and cadmium at former mining sites and recommends the species as an ideal candidate for further study. (3)
I also recommend split gill mushrooms for further study. The best way to begin your own investigation would be to bundle up and look for these little beauties growing on dead hardwood trees in your neighborhood or nearby woods. First marvel at them doing what they do just for themselves. Namely, spreading quietly and unobtrusively across the globe by thriving on a diet of lignin (4) and engaging in some interesting mating behaviors. This alone is enough. If you want more, observe them longer (the fruiting bodies are long lived), or type Schizophyllum commune into an internet search engine, as I did, and find in them an easy way to while away a chilly winter afternoon.