Help! I have something strange growing on my garden plant

Q&A: I found the growth when I was tidying up the garden. Does it pose a threat to my other plant?

Q: I found these purple growths on my purple Berberis, when I was tidying up the garden in January. Can you tell me what it is and if it poses a threat to my adjacent purple acer palmatum? CO’D, Co Meath

A: It can be easy to jump to the worst possible conclusion when we discover something strange growing on our plants. But you’ll be relieved to know that these odd purple growths pose no threat at all to your acer tree. Commonly known as Jelly Ear, Dead Man’s Ear or Judas’s Ear, on account of its similarity in shape to the human ear, and more properly known as Auricularia auricula-judae, it’s a type of fungus most often found on the decaying branches of elder, ash, beech, birch and sycamore trees. Widespread in Ireland, Its distinctively shaped red-purple fruiting bodies can be found growing throughout the year but are most plentiful in autumn-winter, and even more so in a mild, wet year.

In some parts of the world Jelly Ear is considered a delicacy, including in China where it’s known as ‘wood ears’. It also has a long history of use in herbal medicine. The British herbalist John Gerard, for example, recommended using it as a remedy for sore throats by boiling the fleshy jelly growths in milk (but please don’t try this at home).

Although the Jelly Ear fungus itself poses absolutely no threat to your plants, the fact that it’s growing on your berberis indicates the presence of dead or dying branches which is an indication that this deciduous shrub is ailing in some way. Even large established plants can sometimes sicken and die for a variety of reasons from old age or a poor growing environment to the possible presence of disease-causing pathogens (examples include verticillium and honey fungus).


For this reason, I’d suggest closely examining your berberis plant and using a sharp clean secateurs and/or pruning saw to remove any dead or dying branches. Signs that a branch is dead include brittle, brown wood, no fresh buds, and no sign of green when you scratch the outer skin of the bark. Bag and then burn all pruning just to be on the safe side, and carefully clean your equipment afterwards. Then clear away any weedy growth from around the base of plants, sprinkle a little slow-release organic fertiliser on the soil, along with a handful or two of powdered seaweed (seaweed has wonderful anti-fungal and antibacterial properties and helps to boost plant health and vigour), before finishing off with a 5cm deep layer of organic mulch.

Jelly Ear likes to grow in damp, shady conditions so one possibility is that your berberis simply doesn’t like the growing conditions it’s been given. Although this genus of ornamental deciduous shrubs is generally considered to be resilient and tolerant of a wide range of conditions, its preference is for full sun or light shade and a moist but well-drained soil. Shade-loving Japanese acers don’t like full sun but do like the same kind of moist but free-draining soil. For this reason, and especially given the record rainfall of the last year, I’d suggest checking to see if there’s any possibility that the soil is suffering intermittently from winter waterlogging, which can cause dieback and disease. If this turns out to be a recurrent problem, then you can improve soil conditions by using regular organic mulches and installing some sort of land drain.

Fionnuala Fallon

Fionnuala Fallon

Fionnuala Fallon is an Irish Times contributor specialising in gardening