mushrooms that glow in the dark

You’re Not Tripping—These Mushrooms Really Glow in the Dark

Journey into the weird science of bioluminescent shrooms

DoubleBlind Mag

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Published on
Updated August 31, 2023

From the freakishly stunning Enigma to the lesser-known yet powerful Pluteus americanus, there’s no shortage of mushroom varieties with unique traits—some even glow in the dark! Encountering a forest floor or decaying wood lit up by the soft glow of bioluminescent mushrooms can be a magical and mesmerizing experience, creating an otherworldly atmosphere in the dark of night. But why does this phenomenon occur?

Glowing Fungi? Why Some Mushrooms Glow in the Dark

Scientists have been studying bioluminescent mushrooms for quite some time, but it wasn’t until recently that they finally unraveled the mystery behind their glow. A group of researchers uncovered the mushrooms’ secret—they utilize oxyluciferin molecules, an enzyme called luciferase, and oxygen, which are the same light-producing substances present in other luminescent creatures and plants.

“On a chemical level, bioluminescence in mushrooms is caused by a group of compounds called ‘luciferins,’” says Dr. K Mandrake, PhD and co-author of The Psilocybin Mushroom Bible. Luciferin comes from the Latin root for “light-bearing.” Mandrake explains that luciferins “react with oxygen and enzymes under certain conditions to produce bluish-green light.”

“Interestingly,” he tells DoubleBlind in an email, “this mechanism is identical across all bioluminescent fungal species.” Currently, scientists know of around 100 mushroom species that glow in the dark—and most grow on wood. Mandrake says that the fact that they all produce luciferins “suggests that bioluminescence evolved early on in fungal history, and the trait has been retained by different species as they evolved.”   

Yet, exactly why some mushrooms evolved to glow in the dark is uncertain. Some research suggests that mushrooms glow to attract insects, which may help the mushrooms spread spores. To test the hypothesis, scientists conducted an experiment employing synthetic mushrooms equipped with green LED lights that emit a glow reminiscent of the fungal bioluminescence found in nature. Remarkably, these plastic mushrooms managed to attract a diverse array of insects, suggesting that these insects aid in the distribution of spores. This collaborative effort contributes to the survival of these mushroom species, which, unfortunately, don’t have legs to spread their spores themselves—yet.

READ: How To Identify Magic Mushrooms: Step-by-Step

What Kind of Mushrooms Glow in the Dark? A Brief List of Bioluminescent Mushrooms

Now that we have a better idea of why certain mushroom species “shine bright like a diamond,” let’s dive into some of the, ahem, trippier species around the world. From the richly diverse Amazon in the Ribeira Valley to the tropical and humid jungles of Southeast Asia, plenty of shrooms light up the night. Here are a few of our favorites:

Green Pepe (Mycena chlorophos)

Mycena chlorophos mushrooms glow in the dark
Mycena chlorophos | Images by Steve Axford

Although the first recorded scientific description of the Mycena chlorophos occurred in the year 1860, from the combined efforts of English researcher Miles Berkeley and the American botanist, Moses Ashley Curtis, much about this species remains mysterious. Found throughout Asia, Australia, and even Brazil, this fungus glows from its mycelia and fruiting body. Nonetheless, the distinctive bioluminescence that it’s widely recognized for is relatively short-lived. It’s most vibrant during the initial stages of the mushroom’s growth. Subsequently, the haunting green glow quickly fades over the next 72 hours after the cap fully opens.

Austral Honey Mushroom (Armillaria novae-zelandiae)

Armillaria novae-zelandiae glow in the dark mushrooms
Armillaria novae-zelandiae | Images by Joseph Pallante

The Austral Honey Mushroom, scientifically referred to as Armillaria novae-zelandiae, is found primarily in Australia and New Zealand during the warmer months of spring and summer. It belongs to the genus Armillaria, which encompasses a group of fungi known for their ability to form mycorrhizal relationships with trees and plants. Their mycelium wraps around the roots of trees and plants, where the organisms mutually exchange nutrients. The fungi also help plants acquire water and nutrients from the soil while receiving sugars from the plants the fungus desperately needs to survive.

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This mushroom species typically has honey-colored to light brown caps that can range in size. The cap’s surface is usually covered in tiny scales or fibers, which help identify the species. Unlike the Green Pepe, the Honey Mushroom only emits light from its mycelium—not its fruiting body, which leads scientists to believe that A. novae-zelandiae’s hypnotic glow may be used for attracting hungry foragers that roam the forest floor at night.

“Another theory is that the light produced is merely incidental to other processes going on in the fungal tissue,” writes Mandrake. He explains that the light given off by fungi may be an “energetic by-product” that serves no particular ecological value, similar to how humans and animals give off body heat.

Jack-O’-Lantern Mushroom (Omphalotus olearius)

Omphalotus olearius glow in the dark mushroom
Omphalotus olearius | Top image by Glen van Niekerk, Bottom image by Noah Siegel

This mushroom glows eerily in the moonlight, but if ingested, its chanterelle-shaped caps can send you hurtling toward the afterlife—so approach them cautiously. Jack-o’-lantern mushrooms flourish across North America and significant central and southern mainland Europe regions. Their growth period typically spans from July to October, forming dense clusters. These mushrooms grow on the base of deciduous trees, decaying stumps, or, less commonly, on submerged wood.

Their fruiting bodies make a striking impression due to their vibrant orange hue. Intensely packed gills cascade down the stem, giving them a distinctive pumpkin-like appearance. The flesh of the mushroom bears a pale orange tint. Notably, the gills emit a faint blue-green luminescence, which becomes viewable only in the darkest conditions.

Bleeding Fairy Helmet (Mycena haematopus)

Mycena haematopus glow in the dark mushroom
Mycena haematopus | Image by Cho Fungi

Besides possessing arguably the most badass name in the entire mushroom kingdom, this species has an equally cool nickname. Occasionally referred to as the “Bleeding Mycena,” Mycena haematopus stands out as one of the few Mycena species that can be quickly identified.

A distinctive characteristic is its tendency to “bleed” purple liquid when its flesh is gently compressed, particularly near the stem’s base. Mycena haematopus typically forms clusters on the decaying wood of hardwood trees, making it easily distinguishable from other bleeding varieties that grow on the forest floor.

Although the conical, bell-shaped caps are technically bioluminescent, the glow is reportedly weak and almost impossible to see with the human eye. We like to think that whatever the Bleeding Fairy Helmet lacks in incandescence, it makes up for with its brightly colored flesh.

Lilac Bonnet (Mycena pura)

Mycena pura glow in the dark mushroom
Mycena pura | Image by Alan Rockefeller

Speaking of shiny purple mushrooms, the aptly named Lilac Bonnet deserves a tip of our proverbial cap. Even in the daylight, this teeny tiny mushroom is cute as a button—and around the same size. A popular find amongst foragers throughout the UK and Europe, it grows equally abundant in North America.

Like with most things in nature, the bright purple hues warn uneducated creatures that the Bonnet is not to be trifled with. M.pura is quite toxic when ingested—but it doesn’t hurt to look.

Candlestick Fungus (Xylaria hypoxylon)

mushrooms that glow in the dark
Xylaria hypoxylon | Image by Alan Rockefeller

Sometimes referred to as the “Staghorn Fungus,” this otherworldly shroom is known for its distinctive appearance. Eagle-eyed foragers can find candlesticks in damp areas where clusters of slender, finger-like structures that resemble charred oak or burnt candles emerge from decaying wood. These structures are the fruiting bodies or “stroma” of the fungus. When young, they appear white or pale gray, but as they mature, they darken and harden, taking on their distinctive black color. Although faint, the glow from X. hypoxylon can be seen throughout North America and the UK in the late fall and early winter.

READ: Blue Bruising Mushrooms—What Causes the Color?

Eternal Light Mushroom (Mycena luxaeterna)

Mycena luxaeterna glow in the dark mushroom
Mycena luxaeterna | Images by CV Stevani

Found only in the rain forests near Sao Paulo, these thin, wispy mushrooms might not be much to look at during the day, but the fungus has a dazzling performance at night. The mushroom displays caps resembling tiny parachutes shooting up from their hair-like base. Initially, these caps appear as dark grayish-brown, transitioning into shades of grayish-yellow or pale grayish-brown as they mature. The delicate stems, which are thin, cylindrical, and hollow, are enveloped in a thick gel and emit consistent yellow-green bioluminescence; however, the caps themselves do not glow.

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