The genus Xylaria, known as dead man fingers, consists of club-like, usually about 30mm tall, decomposers of wood or plant debris that become black and hard by maturity, reminiscent of carbon or charcoal. These ascomycetes are in fact "Pyrenomycetes," which means they produce spores in asci that are embedded in tiny pockets called "perithecia"; the asci take turns growing into the narrow opening of the pocket so that they can shoot spores away from the fungus and into the air currents.

The Xylaria life cycle gets a little complicated, and the complications can make precise identification of one's Xylaria collections difficult. Like many fungi, Xylaria species hedge their reproductive bets by engaging in both sexual and asexual reproduction. The spores, asci, and perithecia mentioned above occur when the fungus is mature, and reproducing sexually. In immature stages, a Xylaria produces asexual spores, officially called "conidia," in a powdery coating.

Several different forms of Xylaria have been found in the Upper Allyn River state forests and Barrington Tops national park, as well as locations around Sydney, as evidenced by the entries on this page. Some are completely black and branched, others mainly white.

Even with identifiable specimens in hand, microscopic analysis is frequently necessary for accurate Xylaria identification--which leads many collectors to label their collections of fat specimens "Xylaria polymorpha" and their skinny collections "Xylaria hypoxylon," since these are species frequently included in field guides.