Witch’s Butter is a common name that usually refers to the species Tremella mesenterica, though other species may also be given the name witch’s butter. Tremella mesenterica belongs to a group of jelly fungi species, each members of the phylum/division Basidiomycota, which lies within the Fungi kingdom. Jelly fungi are so named due to their texture. Witch’s butter fungi are often likened to marmalade due to their lumpy, gelatinous texture and yellow color.
Members of the Basidiomycota phylum, are commonly known as jelly fungi, and should not be confused with members of the Ascomycota phylum, which are commonly known as jelly-like fungi. Jelly fungi belong to three separate orders, Tremellales, Auriculariales, and Dacrymycetales. Each of these three fungal relatives is yellow and has a brain-like appearance — therefore they are often called yellow brain fungus.
Like many fungi, Tremella mesenterica, the common witch’s butter, is a parasite. Interestingly, this species feeds on other fungi. The victims of choice for common witch’s butter are fungi that feed on decaying wood. Thus one is most likely to find Tremella mesenterica growing on wood that is damp or decomposing.
The species Tremella aurantia, also called witch’s butter, is also a parasite. This species of witch’s butter has a very similar appearance to Tremella mesenterica, and a microscope is often needed to tell them apart. Tremella aurantia, like its cousins, grows in costal forests such as those in the lower elevation Sierra Nevada mountains range.
The name witch’s butter is also given to the species, Dacrymyces palmatus. This species is distinguishable from other witch’s butter because it is more orange in color than its yellow tinted cousins. Dacrymyces palmatus is also set apart from other witch’s butter because it is not a parasite. This species is saprobic, meaning that it lives off of dead or decaying plant material. Specifically, Dacrymyces palmatus is usually found in the decaying plant matter of conifer trees.
Most jelly fungi, that is, members of the Basidiomycota phylum, are edible. They are odorless and flavorless, but can add a distinctive texture to a culinary dish. A common way to eat these fungi is to dry and rehydrate them, and add them to soup. It is reported that in China, jelly fungi are thought to improve circulation and breathing. Chemicals found in certain species of Jelly fungi are thought to have a blood thinning effect.
According to Easter European legend, the appearance of the Witch’s Butter fungus upon the gate or door of one’s home meant that one’s home and family had been targeted by the spell of a witch. The only remedy for lifting the evil spell was to pierce the yellow fungus with something sharp until it died.
It is important to note that common names used to refer to certain species can change across regions and languages. Many fungi are highly toxic, and may be given the same common name as a benign species. Therefore, before consuming any type of fungi, one should be certain of the taxonomical identity of the fungi. For example, the species Exidia glandulosa, a black fungus found mostly in England, is also given the common name witch’s butter. This species is toxic, and therefore inedible.