Major Groups > Saddles


Saddles: The Genus Helvella  

[ Ascomycota > Pezizales > Helvellaceae . . . ]

by Michael Kuo

The mushrooms in Helvella, sometimes called the "Elfin Saddles," are among my favorites. Many of them are stunningly beautiful, and even those that are not beautiful somehow manage to be interesting. Species of Helvella have irregular caps that are saddle-shaped, lobed, cuplike, or downright irregular. The caps are not brightly colored, and are usually white, cream, buff, brown, gray, black, or tan. Helvella species grow on the ground or, in a few cases, on rotting wood. Most species fruit in summer and fall, but several can be found in the winter and spring in warm climates. Most if not all Helvella species are mycorrhizal.

Traditionally, identification of Helvella species was mostly accomplished through careful inspection of macroscopic physical features, with special attention focused on the shape of the cap, the fuzziness or baldness of the undersurface of the cap, and (especially) the stem, which may be dramatically ribbed and/or pocketed, along with occasional references to microscopic analysis (for example, separating Helvella macropus from its many look-alikes with analysis of spore morphology). However, contemporary study of the genus is beginning to discover that there are many more species than we thought there were, with more limited ranges and ecologies; thus geography and mycorrhizal hosts are important for identification of species, as well.

Nine years ago, in 2012, I wrote the following on a previous version of this webpage: "To my knowledge DNA studies have yet to be focused on the genus Helvella . . . but after working with the fairly closely related morels it would not surprise me at all if such studies were to more or less trash all of our current species concepts and reveal a much larger number of North American species than we currently acknowledge." At the time classic European species names were being applied to most North American Helvella collections. While this is still the case overall, DNA-informed studies in the last decade have, indeed, begun to create a proliferation of North American helvellas, many of which may be cryptic species; see the Helvella lacunosa group to read the writing on the North American helvelloid wall.


Helvella crispa

Helvella elastica

Helvella acetabulum

Helvella sulcata

Key to 17 Saddle-like and Lobed (Noncupulate) Taxa of Helvella in North America  

 Note: Species with a cuplike cap (with or without a stem) are not treated here; see the key to the cup fungi for cupulate species.

1.Base of stem attached to copious underground, bright yellow mycelium; cap pale pinkish tan, vaguely convex; found under conifers in northern and montane areas.

1.Not attached to bright yellow mycelium; cap and ecology varying.

2.Cap dark brown or reddish brown or purplish red, 2- to 3-lobed; growing on wood (or, rarely, terrestrially, especially in the West); stem smooth or broadly wrinkled; spores with two oil droplets.

2.Not completely as above.

3.Cap brown, cushion-shaped and puffy; stem ribbed, with pink to purplish shades.

3.Not completely as above.

4.Growing on logs in northern North America, west to Alberta; spores round.

4.Growing on the ground (occasionally on wood) in western North America; spores ellipsoid.

5.Stem with sharply defined ribs.

5.Stem smooth, wrinkled, broadly grooved once, or with a few folds at its base—but without sharply defined ribs.

6.Cap white or whitish.

6.Cap brown, gray, or black.

7.Cap edges becoming intergrown with the stem by maturity; undersurface of cap under a hand lens smooth or nearly so.
Helvella pallescens

7.Cap edges never becoming intergrown with the stem; undersurface of cap under a hand lens finely velvety or fuzzy.

8.Cap brown; undersurface of cap fuzzy; western North America.

8.Cap gray to black; undersurface bald or nearly so; variously distributed.

9.Cap more or less convex or cushion-shaped.
Helvella phlebophora

9.Cap saddle-shaped, lobed, or irregular.

10.Cap saddle-shaped or 3-lobed, pale to dark gray; usually growing on and around rotting hardwood stumps in upland woods.

10.Cap variously shaped, dark gray to black; usually growing terrestrially under conifers, often in wet areas (bogs, among damp mosses, and so on) or on disturbed ground (roadbanks, landscaped areas, ditches, and the like).

11.Stem small (to 6 cm long and 1 cm thick), with blunt ribs that do not form holes and pockets; cap nearly always loosely saddle-shaped.

11.Stem often larger than above, with sharp-edged ribs that form holes and pockets; cap ranging from saddle-shaped to irregularly lobed and folded.

12.Mushrooms 5–30 cm high, with stems up to 10 cm thick; growing under conifers in western North America; appearing from October to March.

12.Mushrooms smaller than above; ecology, range, and season varying.

13.Growing under oaks in western North America; appearing from December to May.

13.Growing under conifers in northern and montane regions; appearing in summer and fall.

14.Cap and stem black or nearly so.

14.Cap and stem variously colored, but not both black.

15.Undersurface of cap densely hairy or fuzzy; cap margin strongly inrolled when young and remaining somewhat inrolled through maturity.

15.Undersurface of cap smooth or very finely fuzzy; cap margin not usually strongly inrolled.
Helvella atra

16.Cap margin never rolled upwards and inwards, even when young; undersurface of cap bald or nearly so; stem hollow.

16.Cap margin usually strongly rolled upwards when young (and sometimes in maturity); undersurface of cap fuzzy or hairy, at least when young; stem hollow or not.

17.Mushroom quite small at maturity (cap no wider than 2 cm, stem no thicker than 0.5 cm); stem brownish or grayish; undersurface of cap densely hairy.
Helvella ephippium

17.Mushroom larger than above at maturity; stem whitish; undersurface finely fuzzy, or bald by maturity.

18.Cap black; stem white; fruiting in winter and spring in California, under narrowleaf cottonwood.
"Helvella leucopus"
sensu Arora, 1986

18.Not completely as above.

19.Cap medium brown to dark brown; undersurface densely and conspicuously fuzzy; found primarily in the Pacific Northwest and on the West Coast, fruiting from March to December.
Helvella compressa

19.Cap variously colored; undersurface finely fuzzy or nearly bald; variously distributed.

20.Cap pale brown to medium brown; fruiting from early summer through fall in eastern North America and in the Canadian Rockies; spores 16–21 µm long.

20.Cap medium brown to dark brown; fruiting in late summer and fall across North America; spores 18–24 µm long.
Helvella albella


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Thanks to the Herbarium of the University of Michigan for lending Helvella specimens I examined in connection with this treatment of the genus; thanks also to Lee Barzee, Django Grootmyers, Ron Kerner, Ed Lubow, and Hugh Smith for donating Helvella collections.

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Kuo, M. (2021, July). Saddles: The genus Helvella. Retrieved from the MushroomExpert.Com Web site:

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