At least in North America, Calostoma cinnabarinum is distinctive and easily recognizable. Two other species of Calostoma also occur in the eastern United States. C. lutescens has a thinner gelatinous layer and a predominately yellow middle layer, or mesoperidium, with the red color confined to the peristome. It also possesses a well-defined collar at the base of the spore case, a longer stipe, and globose, pitted spores. C. ravenelii is not gelatinous, but instead has warts adorning the spore case, and is smaller than C. cinnabarinum. It also has a reddish peristome but is otherwise clay-colored. Unlike C. lutescens, the spores of C. ravenelii cannot be distinguished from those of C. cinnabarinum except through the use of atomic force microscopy.
More representatives of the genus are present in Asia. At least nine species have been recorded from mainland India, some of which also overlap C. cinnabarinum‘s range in Indonesia, Taiwan, or Japan. Many of these species can be readily distinguished by macroscopic features. C. japonicum is pinkish orange and lacks a gelatinous outer layer, while both C. jiangii and C. junghuhnii are brown. However, others require microscopic features of spore shape and ornamentation for identification. Unlike the uniformly elongated spores of C. cinnabarinum, C. guizhouense possesses both elliptical and globose spores. C. pengii differs primarily in the pattern of ornamentation on its spore surface.
The appearance of the fruit bodies has been compared to amphibian eggs or “small red tomato[es] surrounded by jelly”. They consist of a bright red, globose head atop a net-like stipe, covered in a thick gelatinous layer. These fruit bodies are initially hypogeous, but emerge from the ground as the stipe continues to expand.
The head is up to 2 cm (0.8 in) in diameter and typically nearly round, although in some populations, it is visibly oval and may be slightly smaller or larger. The internal structure of the head is complex, sometimes described as an exoperidium and endoperidium that each possess sublayers, and sometimes as distinct layers. The outermost is a yellowish, translucent coating of jelly-like material 4 to 9 millimetres (0.2 to 0.4 in) thick, somewhat similar to a gelatinous universal veil. Below this coating is a thin, cinnabar-red membrane. As the mushroom ages, these outer layers break down and fall away from the head. Pieces of the red membrane become embedded in the remaining gelatinous material, giving them the appearance of small red seeds.This process reveals the endoperidium, a tough, non-gelatinous layer that does not break apart. When first revealed, it has a powdery, bright red surface that weathers to orange or pale yellow as the powder wears away. Bright red apical ridges or rays form a peristome. North American specimens typically have four to five such ridges, but Asian populations have been described with as many as seven. Contained inside the endoperidium is the gleba, or spore mass, which is white when young but buff or yellow in older specimens.
Like the head, the stipe is covered in a gelatinous outer layer. The stipe itself consists of a number of anastomosing gelatinous strands, giving the structure a reticulate or spongy appearance. These strands vary in color from red to yellow-brown, and fade with age.The stipe is 1 to 2 cm (0.4 to 0.8 in) thick and 1.5 to 4 cm (0.6 to 2 in) long, although some or all of this length may remain buried.
Distribution, Habitat, and Ecology:
Widely distributed, Calostoma cinnabarinum can be found from Massachusetts south to Florida in the United States. Its range extends at least as far west as Texas, with possible populations in the Southwest, but is most common in the Appalachian Mountains where it becomes more frequent with increasing elevation. It is also present in Eastern Mexico, where it grows in the subtropical cloud forests of Veracruz and Hidalgo. In Central America, it is known from Belize’s Chiquibul National Park, the cloud forests of Baja Verapaz and El Quiché in Guatemala, and Panama. The species is also recorded in South America, from Colombia as far southeast as Brazil, where it is described as rare. It has also been collected from a disjunct population in Asia, where it has been recorded from seven provinces in mainland China, mostly in the southeast, including Taiwan, as well as from Indonesia, Japan, and Jirisan in South Korea.
Calostoma cinnabarinum was thought to be saprotrophic, and has been described in this manner in both scholarly and popular discussions of the species. However, this classification was the result of its taxonomic history and comparisons with saprotrophic fungi that are not closely related. After its assignment to the Sclerodermatineae, a suborder whose members are ectomycorrhizal, its ecological role came into question. In 2007, Andrew Wilson and David Hibbett of Clark University and Eric Hobbie of the University of New Hampshire employed isotopic labeling, DNA sequencing, and morphological analysis to determine that this species is also ectomycorrhizal. Like all mycorrhizal fungi, C. cinnabarinum establishes a mutualistic relationship with the roots of trees, allowing the fungus to exchange minerals and amino acidsextracted from the soil for fixed carbon from the host. The subterranean hyphae of the fungus grow a sheath of tissue around the rootlets of the tree. This association is especially beneficial to the host, as the fungus produces enzymes that mineralize organic compounds and facilitate the transfer of nutrients to the tree. The only host trees identified for C. cinnabarinus are Quercus oaks, although related members of Calostoma have been observed to associate with other trees in the Fagaceae family, such as beech.
In addition to its required association with oaks, C. cinnabarinum appears to be restricted to wetter forests. Early descriptions of its habitat found it in “rather moist situations” and in “damp woods”, and David Arora has more recently described its preference for the humid forests of the southern Appalachians. In contrast, it has not been detected in the dry oak forests of California and is likely also absent from the dry tropical forests of western Costa Rica. In Brazil it has been observed in the sandy soil and drier conditions of the Caatinga and cerrado, although only after periods of heavy rainfall. Its outer layer may provide protection from desiccation. Fruit bodies are most common in the late summer and fall, although spring occurrences are known.
Squirrels have been known to feed on C. cinnabarinum, although its gelatinous coating deters insect predation.
As with all members of its genus, C. cinnabarinum is generally considered inedible by field guides. Because the fruit bodies begin development underground, they are too tough for consumption by the time they are visible, and their appearance may be considered unappetizing. A study of the cultural practices of mestizo descendants of the Otomi people in Tenango de Doria, Mexico, reported that immature specimens of C. cinnabarinum, known locally as yemitas, were frequently eaten raw in the past, especially by children. Consumption of the species was no longer commonplace, with only five of the 450 locals interviewed familiar with the practice. The gleba of C. cinnabarinum has been described as having a mild taste and, despite a local recollection to the contrary, is not sweet. C. cinnabarinum has also been used in traditional medicine. A 1986 ethnomycological study of native traditions in Veracruz identified this use of huang noono, which locals roasted, then consumed as a powder with mineral water to treat gastrointestinal distress. Unlike these Mexican traditions, Hunan folk beliefs hold that the mushroom is poisonous on account of its bright color.