Published: 24/01/2013 23:59 - Updated: 23/01/2013 15:56

Tain's on the nature map

This photo is courtesy of David Genney of SNH. They tell us that the name of the fungus has now been changed to “Jelly Ear”!
This photo is courtesy of David Genney of SNH. They tell us that the name of the fungus has now been changed to “Jelly Ear”!

BY George, the old fallen-in hen house fairly roared away; so hot I couldn’t get close enough to throw the burnt ends of sticks into the middle.

And all the time three hen pheasants calmly watched the fire from the top of the old dyke. They know that they are safe enough living where they are – and that every so often they can help the hens finish their layers pellets and scraps over in the new hen run.

But while I waited for the heat to subside, what better than to gather up more sticks on the other side of the chicken wire. So I walk over and bend down to reach for a big one lying in the ditch, immediately below the three hen pheasants. Oho – what was this? Jew’s ears!

Auricularia auricula-judae – until last week I had never knowingly seen this fungus before, save in a mushroom book.

So I rang Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) in Golspie.

Now at this stage a word of thanks to SNH: over the years they have courteously and patiently answered a number of fauna and flora questions from me.

Could I have really seen a slow worm where I used to live above Edderton? (Yes.) Surely that wasn’t a raven that I saw on Tain Hill? (Wrong; it was a raven.) Goodness me, a humming bird hawk moth flying over my cabbages! (Are you absolutely sure? Could it possibly have been "after lunch"?)

Shortly after my call, SNH’s David Patterson very kindly emails me a map of Scotland showing the locations where Jews ear fungi have been seen in the past. And then minutes later he forwards another map, this one sent to him by the Inverness SNH office. This is all most interesting.

While in most of Scotland and England, Jews ears appear common, north of Inverness there are no records at all of Jews ears fungi being found and identified. The furthest north are a couple of records to the east of Inverness – around Cawdor.

So my chance find is of interest; and according to SNH I have probably just earned myself a new spot on the map, this time at Tain. I am really quite chuffed about this.

Of course at first glance you would be forgiven for thinking that the name Jew’s ear is offensive and politically incorrect – not least because the fungus looks exactly like a large brown ear. Indeed it would be tempting to add that Fagin couldn’t have done better, but I’d probably better not go there.

Auricularia auricula-judae means much the same in Latin, save for one important difference. Longer ago the fungus was known as Judas’s ear, rather than Jew’s ear.

"When the morning was come, all the chief priests and elders of the people took counsel against Jesus to put him to death. And when they had bound him, they led him away, and delivered him to Pontius Pilate the governor. Then Judas, which had betrayed him, when he saw that he was condemned, repented himself, and brought again the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, saying, I have sinned in that I have betrayed the innocent blood. And they said, what is that to us? See thou to that. And he cast down the pieces of silver in the temple, and departed, and went and hanged himself."

Throughout much of Europe legend had it that Judas hung himself from an elder tree – and that the appearance of Judas’s ears on elder trees is a combination of the reappearance of his accursed spirit and a perpetual reminder of his suicide (unless you live in the far north of Scotland, that is).

It is also interesting to note in passing that during the Middle Ages it was thought that witches lived in elder trees and that was why it was considered unwise to cut them down. A present day reference to this folklore occurs in JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books where the most powerful wand of them all is the Elder Wand, otherwise known as the Deathstick or the Wand of Destiny.

Alas, in clearing the elders away from the redundant hen run and burning them I may well have done myself unexpected mischief. Whatever. Anyway you read it here first.

And can you eat a Jew’s (or Judas’s) ear? Apparently you can – and a gargled infusion of Jew’s ear and hot water is supposed to cure sore throats. However, eating the fungus itself has been compared to "eating an Indian rubber with bones in" and, not fancying this description, I have left the fungi where I found them: growing on an old elder branch below the dyke where the hen pheasants take the winter sun.

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