No, Doctor Lecter has not been at it again – this is not a real ear. Its quite remarkable resemblance to the human ear has, however, given it a host of names throughout the ages – some it has to be said less flattering (or at least politically correct) than others.
The fungus is called Auricularia auricula-judae and it is found throughout the world. As you will see, some examples look more ear-like than others – you might even say earily so (to make a very poor play on words). In fact, anywhere you find elder trees you will likely find the Judas Ear.
It was first called the more unwieldy Judas’s Ear and as you have probably guessed it was named after the disciple who betrayed Jesus Christ. He regretted it fairly soon after and hanged himself from a tree – some stories (outside of Biblical passages) have it that it was an elder tree. In the English speaking world it is mentioned in texts as far back as the seventeenth century.
Said to be sent to grow on the elder tree as a constant reminder to us of the betrayal of the Christ by Judas, its name morphed by the eighteenth century to Jew’s Ear. Although all fungi was generally referred to as Jew’s Meat in the often casually but occasionally sickeningly violent anti-Semitic Middle Ages, later text books regularly took pains to point out that it referred specifically to Judas rather than Jewry as a whole.
Either way, the name is unflattering and it is often called the Jelly Ear, Common Ear Fungus and Kikurage among others. It does not appear exclusively on elder trees, contrary to popular legend – although it has to be said that 90 percent of the time it does.
Although edible it has never had much of a reputation around the dinner tables of the English speaking world. In the past it has been used in Europe as an aid to alleviate a sore throat. You will not hear any trendy chef waxing lyrical about this rather bland tasting fungus. In Asia, it is still regularly used in soups to help with colds and fevers. There is evidence of it being cultivated in China over fifteen hundred years ago.
The Judas Ear grows to between three and centimeters across but is has been found up to 12 centimeters in width. If you touch it, it feels tough, gelatinous and elastic – and is said to feel quite like a real ear. Whatever its size, it is probably true to say that boys have been using it to frighten younger siblings for thousands of years.