Earth Notes: The Laughing Jim Mushroom

Jan 31, 2018

The Colorado Plateau is rich in wild mushrooms. Many of these fabulous fungi are delicious to eat, if you know what you’re doing. Others taste bad, and some are highly toxic.

Laughing Jim (Gymnopilus sp.)
Credit Gary Alpert

One interesting mushroom bears the playful name of Laughing Jim. It’s common on the plateau during the summer monsoon season—and is also found around the world from South America, to northern Africa, India, China, Siberia, and Australia.

This pumpkin-orange mushroom most often grows in clusters at the base of tree stumps and logs of both hardwoods and conifers—though it can be seen most anywhere around decaying wood.

Laughing Jim’s big, bright, yellow-orange cap can be more than seven inches across, turning to orange-brown as the mushroom ages. Still its identity could be mistaken with other highly poisonous mushrooms, so always best to leave it in the ground.

It has a disagreeably bitter taste, and some subspecies contain a neurotoxin. Others contain psilocybin, a hallucinogenic substance that probably explains Laughing Jim’s common name.

Psilocybin is found in more than 200 distinct species of mushrooms, though concentrations can vary greatly even in the same species. This complex chemistry may be the mushroom’s way of avoiding being eaten by animals. And the gaudy color serves as a warning or memory alarm of its toxic nature.  

Still, just the sight of Laughing Jim can produce a smile on a walk in the woods.