Dead Man’s Fingers

Photo of mature dead man's fingers mushrooms, lumpy grayish black masses
Safety Concerns
Not recommended/not edible
Scientific Name
Xylaria polymorpha

Black, distorted, clublike or finger-shaped; wrinkled, charcoal-like surface. Grows at the base of rotting deciduous trees and stumps. June–October, but can be found all year. Fruiting body irregularly clublike or finger-shaped, short-stalked; black, like charcoal; surface texture finely wrinkled or roughened; flesh inside is whitish and tough. Spore print dark brown to black. Spores magnified are narrow, spindle-shaped, flat on one side.

Lookalikes: There are a few other, similar Xylaria species. Also, very young specimens of devil’s urn (Urnula craterium) have rounded tops before the cup opens.


Fruiting body width: ½–1¼ inches; height: ½–3 inches.

Where To Find
image of Dead Man's Fingers Distribution Map


Grows in clusters at the base of rotting deciduous trees and stumps. In spring, dead man’s fingers may be covered with white, powdery spores that blacken as the mushroom matures. This is an eerie, unusual-looking mushroom — there is nothing quite like it.

Not edible.

Life Cycle

This species exists as a network of fungal cells (mycelium) within dead trees, stumps, and buried dead tree roots, digesting and decaying the wood. In spring, the mycelium develops thin “fingers” aboveground. Spores form on the "skin" of these structures and float away to start new mycelia elsewhere. As the “fingers” mature over the summer, they grow and become more grotesque and fingerlike. By season's end, they dry and look like something from a cat's litter box.

Fungi can be strikingly beautiful — or breathtakingly strange! Discovering fungi can bring out our innate capacity for awe and wonder. We can choose to view them with disgust, amusement, or plain curiosity.

Fungi are vitally important for a healthy ecosystem. This fungus feeds off of dead trees, decomposing the tough materials wood is made of. This cleans the forest and helps nutrients to cycle back into the soil.

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Similar Species
About Mushrooms in Missouri

Mushrooms are a lot like plants, but they lack chlorophyll and have to take nutrients from other materials. Mushrooms are neither plants nor animals. They are in a different kingdom — the fungi. Fungi include the familiar mushroom-forming species, plus the yeasts, molds, smuts, and rusts.

Always be cautious when eating edible mushrooms. Be absolutely sure of the ID, and only eat a small amount the first time you try it to avoid a reaction..