Major Groups > Saddles


Saddles: The Genus Helvella  

[ Ascomycetes > 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 coastal areas.

Identification of Helvella species is 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. Microscopic analysis comes into play in a few of the more difficult identification areas of the genus--most notably, in separating Helvella macropus from its many look-alikes--and consists primarily of analysis of spore morphology.

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.


Helvella crispa

Helvella acetabulum

Helvella sulcata

Key to 15 Saddle-like and Lobed (Noncupulate) Taxa of Helvella in North America  

1.Cap cuplike; with or without a stem. (Not treated below; the cuplike species of Helvella are treated in the key to the cup fungi.)

1.Cap not cuplike.

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; undersurface of cap not hairy; 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 elliptical.

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. (See also pale forms of Helvella sulcata.)

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 lactea

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

12.Cap and stem black or nearly so.

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

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

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

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

14.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.

15.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

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

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

16.Not completely as above.

17.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.

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

18.Cap pale brown to medium brown; fruiting from early summer through fall in eastern North America and in the Canadian Rockies; spores 16-21 µ long.
Helvella latispora
= H. stevensii

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

Note: Cudonia circinans looks a lot like a species of Helvella until microscopic analysis reveals its amazing, needle-like spores.


Abbott, S. O. & Currah, R. S. (1997). The Helvellaceae: Systematic revision and occurrence in northern and northwestern North America. Mycotaxon 62: 1–125.

Batra, L. R. (1976). Helvella and Gyromitra (Pezizales: Operculatae) in the southern Appalachians. In B. C. Parker & M. K. Roane, eds. Distributional history of the biota of the southern Appalachians. Part IV. Algae & fungi: biogeography, systematics and ecology. Charlottesville, Virginia: University Press of Virginia. 145–204.

Dissing, H. & Lange, M. (1967). Notes on the genus Helvella in North America. Mycologia 59: 349–360.

Kanouse, B. B. (1946). Some studies in the genus Helvella. Papers of the Michigan Academy of Science, Arts and Letters 32: 83–90.

Weber, N. S, (1972). The genus Helvella in Michigan. The Michigan Botanist 11: 147–201.

Weber, N. S, (1975). Notes on western species of Helvella. I. Beihefte Nova Hedwigia 51: 25–38.


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 Ron Kerner, Ed Lubow, and Lee Barzee for donating Helvella collections.

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Kuo, M. (2012, October). Saddles: The genus Helvella. Retrieved from the MushroomExpert.Com Web site:

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