Wood Ear (Tree Ear)

Family: 
Auriculaceae
Description: 

Reddish brown to grayish black; rubbery; earlike or cup-shaped. Usually in groups on rotting wood. May–November. Fruiting body earlike or cup-shaped; upper surface reddish brown to grayish to blackish, smooth, wavy; underside often lighter than the upper surface; silky or finely hairy, irregularly veined; flesh thin and rubbery. Spore print white. Spores magnified are sausage-shaped, smooth, colorless.

Lookalikes: The wood ear could be confused with a cup fungus except that it is rubbery, not brittle like many cup fungi, and it grows in many irregular shapes.

Size: 
Fruiting body width: 1–6 inches.
Habitat and conservation: 
The wood ear usually grows in groups on rotting wood. It is very common.
Distribution in Missouri: 
Statewide.
Status: 
Considered an edible and medicinal mushroom. A closely related species is cultivated in Asia and can be found in the United States in Asian markets. In Chinese, its name is "Hei mu-er." You may have eaten it in Chinese hot and sour soup.
Life cycle: 
This species exists as a network of fungal cells (mycelium) within rotting wood. The mycelium obtains nourishment by digesting, and rotting, the wood. When ready to reproduce, the mycelium develops the "fruiting body" outside the wood, which is the reproductive structure. Spores are produced on the underside surfaces of the "ears"; they are released to begin new mycelia elsewhere.
Human connections: 
The wood ear has been reported to positively affect blood coagulation and decrease blood cholesterol levels. Since it is a popular edible mushroom in China, it may contribute to the low incidence of heart disease there.
Ecosystem connections: 
This is one of the many fungus species that live on decaying wood. It and other such saprobic fungi play an incredibly important role in breaking down the tough materials in wood and returning those nutrients to the soil.