Darwin's Neon Orange Balls

If you're wondering what in the world are those neon orange balls growing on a beech tree, you're in good company. See, it was Charles Darwin himself who first encountered the strange balls when he landed in Tierra del Fuego during his voyage on the HMS Beagle.

Turns out, the neon-colored balls known as "beech orange" are actually a fungus named Cyttaria darwini (yes, named after the biologist in his honor). But that's not the strangest thing about the fungus. Turns out, you can make an alcoholic drink out of them!

Darwin himself noted they made up a substantial portion of the diet of the natives of Terra del Fuego and grew “in vast numbers on the beech trees”. He observed that the women and children collected their beech oranges when “tough and mature”, and that they had a “mucilaginous, slightly sweet taste, with a faint smell like that of a mushroom.”

Another South American group — the Araucans of Chile — discovered and capitalized upon the happy fact that Cyttaria harioti contains up to 15% fermentable sugars and that, like grapes, come naturally coated with the yeast Saccharomyces. This would be the same Saccharomyces that has made the fortunes of Fleischman’s, Budweiser, and half of France.

After drying, grinding, and mixing beech oranges with warm water and allowing nature to take its course, the Araucans enjoy an alcoholic beverage called chicha del llau-llau made from the ripe fruiting bodies, according to Bryce Kendrick’s The Fifth Kingdom.

Jennifer Frazer of Scientific American's The Artful Amoeba blog has the post: Link

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