You have to look hard to find Chorioactis geaster, the official state mushroom of Texas. Also known as the devil’s cigar or the Texas star, the fungus hides under layers of leaves and plants. Its dark brown hue may blend in with the decaying cedar elm stumps on which it grows. You need “mushroom eyes” to spot it, says Angel Schatz, a leader with the Central Texas Mycological Society. That’s the phrase she uses to describe the keen attention and skill of fellow mycophiles, or mushroom enthusiasts, when they’re out on the hunt.
However, you can quickly see this leathery, brown, star-shaped fungus all over the internet at the moment. That’s because cool, wet weather encourages the Texas star to fruit. Its strange appearance—plus the fact that it produces a hissing sound—inevitably captures the curiosity of news organizations. A sighting in Inks Lake State Park, near Burnet, made headlines in December; last week a KUT reporter spotted one at the Zilker Botanical Garden, in Austin.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that the Texas star is a bit of a brash beauty queen, with a brief but glorious reign lasting no more than three weeks. It emerges as a swollen, fuzzy, football- or cigar-shaped projectile that fans refer to as a shrump. That bulbous thingy, more technically called an ascoma, can stretch up to seven inches or so before it splits open into a fleshy starflower shape the color of tanned leather. The star can have four to nine points; seven points are common. The structure makes a hissing sound when spores shoot out from its center, briefly creating a situation akin to spray from a plant mister. No one is exactly sure how many other cup fungi species hiss; Schatz knows of about fourteen. This evolutionary trait helps the fungus reproduce. Eventually, the star decomposes.
To help folks experience the Texas star in its natural element, Schatz and other members of the Central Texas Mycological Society have been busy leading walks this winter at parks in and around Austin. (These guided outings sell out quickly: if you haven’t gotten a ticket yet, your next chances are January 19 at Phil Hardberger Park, in San Antonio, and January 26 at Purgatory Creek in San Marcos.) Schatz says Inks Lake may be her favorite Texas star haunt, in part because of its wild nature. “There’s an abundance of them because no one there is messing with the forest nutrient cycle,” she says. “You can see trees fallen down and decaying, with other mushrooms, and at the stump, there’s stars.”
Texas stars also thrive along Austin’s greenbelts, popping up after rains from November to February. Clinging to the cedar elms’ dead roots, these fungi belong to a class of mushrooms called decomposers. “Usually the stump has been decaying five or ten years and looks kind of black,” Schatz says. “We tell people to look for a kind of black crown. Sometimes it’s already broken down to the edge of the soil, so the blackness blends in.”
First collected in Austin in the 1890s, the Texas star grows along the Balcones Escarpment from the state’s northeast border to San Antonio. The first Oklahoma sighting came in 2017, in Choctaw County, about 40 miles north of Paris, Texas. Apart from Texas and Oklahoma, the only other place it’s been regularly documented is Japan, where it’s called kirinomitake. Last year it was found in Taiwan for the first time. No one can explain the odd distribution—or why Texas stars don’t grow on cedar elms elsewhere across the American South, or why the Japanese ones grow on oak stumps.
Japan’s kirinomitake was first sighted in 1937 and rediscovered in the 1970s. About twenty years ago, researchers at Harvard University compared its DNA with that of the Texas star and concluded that the populations diverged 19 million years ago. This means humans did not spread the spores. How the fungus ended up living in only two places 6,400 miles apart remains a mystery—one of many regarding Chorioactis geaster, which is the only species within its genus.
Schatz has gone to some lengths to observe how the mushrooms open and hiss. She’s harvested specimens, potted them up, kept them misted for days in barbecue trays in her shower, and even taken them out for walks to simulate wind. (She finally caught them in the act one night when she got up to go to the bathroom.) Later she got lucky and captured video footage of a Texas star hissing out its spores at Zilker.
Though news reports consistently refer to the Texas star as “rare,” it is not rare in the sense of, say, being an endangered species, since it appears to be abundant in the few places it is known to grow. “It is geographically rare,” Schatz clarifies, then adds that it is certainly highly unusual. “There’s so many things that make this mushroom rare, from the morphology to the distribution to the habitat to the audible hissing.”
Texas stars are not considered poisonous, but are probably not particularly edible, either. No one I spoke with has tried to taste one. Schatz would love to have the mushroom’s compounds identified by a lab, but her group doesn’t have the funds for that. East Texas–based fungi guru David Lewis would also like to know what’s in it. He’s a retired research chemist but no longer has a lab at his disposal. Fungi research in general appears to be low on the academic totem pole, even though experts suspect that only 5 percent of the world’s millions of fungi species have been named—and they’re vital to the environment, as the surprisingly popular 2019 documentary Fantastic Fungi explored. “Taxonomy’s not glamorous,” Lewis says. “Right now it’s mostly amateurs doing the research.”
“Amateur” is a relative word in the myco world. We’ll call them citizen scientists. Lewis never finished his doctoral thesis on the mycology of the Big Thicket, but during more than forty years of fungi hunting in East Texas, he has discovered about a dozen new species. Five of them he found on his sixty-acre property in Newton County, about an hour north of Beaumont. Along with many articles, he has coauthored the comprehensive guidebook Mushrooms of the Gulf Coast States.
Schatz says she is “nowhere near an expert in the vast space of mycology,” although she grew up foraging for morels every spring in Missouri among farmers and other earth-conscious relatives. She thought her foraging days were over when she moved to Texas in 2001, but she connected with other enthusiasts about eight years ago and joined the Central Texas Mycological Society soon after it was established in 2019. She has applied her experience as a tech consultant to build the group’s profile on the “wood-wide web,” as she calls it. In just five years, the Central Texas society has become one of the nation’s most active myco groups, with more than 1,200 members. That’s impressive considering that dry, arid Central Texas is hardly the mushroom nirvana of, say, the wet Pacific Northwest or New England.
Join the myco movement, and you’ll soon discover that Texas forests yield some tasty culinary mushrooms. Schatz’s foraging favorites include the orange chicken of the woods, which indeed tastes like chicken, with just a hint of lemon, and is a treat when sautéed in butter. A parasite on the heartwood of Texas live oaks in early fall, the species thrives in urban environments where trees have been trimmed. “It only breaks down certain parts of the wood, so it’s not structurally disruptive,” Schatz says. “It’s one of the easiest fungi to identify, it has no toxic look-alikes, and it’s delicious.”
Schatz also finds Texas chanterelles “sweet and yummy.” They grow on Texas live oaks and red oaks and are smaller than their relatives in other parts of the country. But they do have toxic look-alikes, including the bright orange Southern jack-o’-lantern. (If you’re new to foraging, don’t go without an expert guide, and never eat a find you aren’t sure about.) Chanterelles may be less well-known to Texas foragers because they fruit during a time when folks don’t want to be outdoors: after torrential rains in late spring, when the air is steamy and mosquitos are biting.
It’s also possible to forage morels (Morchella esculenta), lion’s mane (Hericium erinaceus), jelly ear (Auricularia americana), and oyster (Pleurotus ostreatus) mushrooms in various places across the state, but they too have toxic look-alikes. Texas A&M professor Brian Shaw, whose focus is fungal biology, says students always ask him about foraging for edibles. His best advice: join an advanced hobbyist group such as the Central Texas Mycological Society, the Gulf South Mycological Society, or Foraging Texas—all of which offer classes, walks, and other excellent resources. “It takes some training and time around people who know what they’re doing. The fungi that will really harm you are pretty rare, but there are lots that will make you feel bad,” he says, adding, “The safest place to find an edible mushroom is the grocery store.”
For that, your mushroom eyes don’t have to be sharp, but your pocketbook should be full. A number of mushroom farms in Texas cultivate fancy (and pricey) varieties. Expect to pay $10 to more than $30 a pound online, at farmers markets, and at Central Market and Whole Foods. An eight-once pack of fresh, fancy cultivated mushrooms from the Houston-based importer and distributor DR Delicacy costs about $9 at select H-E-B stores.