Mushrooms come in all kinds of shapes and colors, but did you know they can also glow in the dark? This trait is rare, as only a handful of bioluminescent mushroom species exist. There are many stories and legends about these glowing fungi, dating back over two thousand years to when Greek philosopher Aristotle referred to them as a “glowing fire” coming from “rotting tree bark.” The mushrooms he identified in the woods had been haunting sailors for years — its eerie, glowing light was bright enough for ships to see on dark, moonless nights. Some Australian Aboriginal people considered the luminous fungi in their area as evil spirits, while Micronesians saw them as evil omens and destroyed them. These fungi have also been used for practical needs around the world, such as using them as a light to see in the dark. Nonetheless, these natural night lights remain a fascinating sight to see if you’re lucky enough to come across them after dark.
Fungal bioluminescence, also known as foxfire, is a result of a chemical reaction between a light-emitting substance called luciferin, an enzyme called luciferase, and oxygen. When the luciferin comes in contact with air, it reacts by turning into a highly excited state called oxyluciferin. The oxyluciferin releases oxygen, causing the fungus to glow (1). This process is similar to what occurs in fireflies and jellyfish. The glowing can appear in both the fruiting bodies and mycelia of fungi.
Some bioluminescent mushrooms glow constantly, while others only emit their green glow at night to conserve energy. But why do they glow in the first place? Scientists believe it is to attract nocturnal animals and insects to help with spore dispersal.
No matter the reason, we’ve compiled a list of some of the most stunning glowing mushrooms that light up the night worldwide.
Scientific name: Panellus stipticus
Found in: Asia, Australia, Europe, and North America
Like other mushrooms in the oyster family, the Bitter Oyster mushroom is generally considered non-toxic. However, it is not necessarily edible because of its repulsively bitter taste, hence its name. The underside of its cap has a stunning pattern created by its unique crossing gills, which is also where the mushroom’s luminescence can be found. Interestingly, the Bitter Oyster mushroom only appears to glow in certain areas, such as North America, and not in many parts of Europe.
Scientific name: Armillaria genus
Found in: North America, Europe, and Northern Asia, introduced to South Africa
Honey mushrooms are safe to eat once cooked and have a delightful, slightly sweet taste. The largest living organism on the planet happens to be a honey fungus; plus, many honey mushroom species are able to glow in the dark – mainly through their mycelium but occasionally in their fruiting body. One of the five bioluminescent mushrooms found in North America happens to be a honey fungus. These mushrooms emit a soft glow that can be seen during the day and night, but their luminescence is only visible in the darkness. The light comes from the underside of the cap of the mushroom.
Scientific name: Mycena chlorophos
Found in: Grows endemically in subtropical Asia, including India, Japan, Taiwan, Polynesia, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka, Brazil, and Australia
The Green Pepe is a type of agaric fungus with a specific growing preference and can only be found in certain regions. It typically thrives in tropical forests and grows on dead or decaying branches. This mushroom is just one of the many fungi in the Mycena genus that glow in the dark. While the bioluminescent Mycena make up the majority of glow-in-the-dark fungus species, the Green Pepe is one of the more common Mycena species on this list. The mushroom gets its nickname from the Bonin Islands of Japan, but it is also known as yakoh-take, the “night-light mushroom.”
Scientific name: Omphalotus nidiformis
Found in: Southwestern Australia and Tasmania
The ghost fungus looks very similar to the classic oyster mushroom, with its cream-colored cap and light gills. However, this mushroom is incredibly toxic and can lead to severe gastrointestinal issues. The mushroom’s bright glow can be seen from far away at night and is the inspiration behind many Aboriginal folklore.
Scientific name: Mycena luxaeterna
Found in: Sāo Paulo, Brazil
The Eternal Light mushroom has only been found in the Sāo Paulo region of Brazil. The species’ common name was inspired by Mozart’s Requiem “Lux Aeterna,” which translates to Eternal Light. Their thin, long stems can grow straight up from the ground but also tend to grow in squiggled patterns. Furthermore, the stems are the only part of the mushroom that glows and is covered by a thick gel. Their caps are parachute-shaped with no bioluminescent properties and remain a greyish-brown.
Common name: Panellus pusillus
Found in: Australia, Asia, Europe, North America, and South America
The Little Ping Pong Bat fungus has a unique appearance both day and night. Its dish-like shape is attached to a stubby stem and has large pores on its underside. Though in the Panellus genus, this mushroom is very closely genetically related to members of the Mycena genus. This may be why Little Ping Pong Bats have such a bright green glow.
Found in: São Paulo, Brazil
Gerronema viridilucens is the only identified bioluminescent species within its genus. It has only been found in a dense rainforest located at a state park south of São Paulo, Brazil. However, scientists expect that the species exists in another 200-500 sites and has a population ranging from 6,400 to 16,000. This glowing mushroom is expected to decline in population by around 16% in the next three generations due to habitat loss and destruction.
Scientific name: Omphalotus olearius and Omphalotus illudens
Found in: Europe and North America
There are multiple types of Jack o’ Lantern mushrooms, both with similar appearances and bioluminescent capabilities. O.olearius is found in woodland areas throughout Europe, while O.illudens and O.subilludens are found in North America. The bright orange fungi stand out day and shine at night, emitting a soft green glow from their gills. Because of their orange hue and funnel shape, it is often confused for the Chanterelle mushroom, but the Jack o’ Lantern mushroom is poisonous to humans and can lead to severe gastrointestinal distress if consumed.
Found in: Northeast India
Roridomyces phyllostachydis is a recently discovered new species of fungi found in the state of Meghalaya in Northeast India. The discovery of this species was very significant to researchers because the discovery of bioluminescent fungi is rare and difficult. Plus, R.phyllostachydis is the first mushroom in the Rorifomyces genus found in India. They thrive on decomposing bamboo substrate and only glow from the stem.
Jpallante via Wikimedia Commons
Found in: New Zealand
During the daytime, Mycena roseoflava is a small, lovely peach-pink mushroom that grows on rotten wood and twigs, but when the sun goes down, it emits a soft green glow from its stem. Although mycologists first discovered it in 1964, M. roseoflava was not scientifically known to be bioluminescent until 2021. However, it is highly probable that the indigenous Māori of New Zealand were aware of the mushroom’s ability to glow in the night.
Scientific name: Neonothopanus gardneri
Found in: Brazil
Flor de coco is indigenous to the Brazilian states of Goiás, Piauí, and Tocantins. The mushroom was first scientifically documented by the English botanist George Gardner in 1840 after he observed a group of boys playing with the luminescent fungi. They are commonly found on decomposing palm leaves, and compared to many other bioluminescent species, they are among the largest and brightest.
So if you ever see a luminescent green light on your next night hike, take a look to see if they might be bioluminescent fungi! Though some of the mushrooms on the list are rare, many can be commonly found in many parts of the world. Who knows how many glowing mushrooms you’ve trekked past during the day that light up the forest during the night?