A student at Stellenbosch University in South Africa has identified a new medicinal mushroom species. Breyten van der Merwe, a third-year microbiology and genetics student, discovered the mushroom while walking in the Knysna forests in January 2021. He collected a sample and brought it to Prof. Karin Jacobs, a microbial ecologist and mycologist at the university as reported by South Coast Sun.
The mushroom belongs to the Hericium genus, well-known for its exceptional medicinal and health-promoting qualities. The new species is the first endemic species of this highly sought-after medicinal mushroom to be found in Southern Africa and only the second in Africa.
The mushroom has been named Hericium ophelieae after the poem “Ophélie” by the French poet Arthur Rimbaud. It is an apt name as the cascading fruiting bodies in the dark Knysna forest are described as “long veils…a white phantom…beautiful as snow”.
The mushroom has mostly been misidentified as the Coral Tooth mushroom (Hericium coralloides) in South Africa. However, according to Van der Merwe, it is often only through DNA sequencing that the different species in this genus can be differentiated.
These coral-like fungi play an important role in breaking hardwoods and conifers. For example, in the Knysna forest, Hericium ophelieae was found only on hardwoods indigenous to the Knysna-Amatole forest, specifically Cape Beech, Cape Holly, Ironwood, and Stinkwood trees.
Van der Merwe says while this is the first endemic species of Hericium to be described from southern Africa, it is certainly not the last. He believes others are likely to be discovered, as mycology as a discipline is still underdeveloped in Africa and southern Africa.
For his BScHons degree, Van der Merwe will further investigate and analyze the compounds found in this species of Hericium. As it is so clearly distinct from other species in this genus, there may be a few more novel findings.
Jacobs says the paper highlights the value of the amateur mycology community: “In South Africa, collaboration between universities and amateur mycologists can increase the number of novel species described from South Africa’s many different biomes”.
The paper “Hericium ophelieae sp. nov., a novel species of Hericium (Basidiomycota: Russulales, Hericiaceae) from the Southern Afrotemperate forests of South Africa” was recently published in the international journal Mycology. This finding highlights the need for further research into the fungal diversity of the Afrotemperate forests of South Africa.
Photo: Facebook / @Stellenbosch University