A history of humans and the tinder fungus (Fomes fomentarius)

A week or two ago I made a post about Fomes fomentarius‘ ability to act as an endophyte on beech (Fagus sylvatica). A rather heavy post in a scientific sense, this post is much lighter, easier to digest, and revolves around man’s relationship with the species.

According to Paul Stamets’ Mycelium Running, which I shall soon review, humans have used Fomes fomentarius for many thousands of years. In fact, records exist that suggest it was collected by man as far back as 11,600 BC – that was during the last ice age! Indeed, it has a long tradition of use, and is considered to be the oldest-known natural product manipulated by man to serve his needs. A record of this fungus’ use was first documented, as text, by Hippocrates (460-377 BC), who noted its use for cauterising wounds and for treating, externally, inflamed organs. Again, we can see a rich history that, unfortunately, is likely to be little-appreciated today.

The reasons behind this collection of brackets by the Hampstead Heath arborists may have differed from the reasons for collections by our ancestors, but it does still shows man’s attraction to fungi. Those larger brackets may start, or be home to, some very good fires.

Stamets also remarks that the famous “ice man” found on the slopes of the Alps, who is alleged to be almost 5,000 years old, was found to be in possession of the ‘wool’ from Fomes fomentarius, in addition to possessing entire fruiting bodies. The wool, which is actually mycelium, is made by boiling the brackets, pounding them, and then peeling them apart. This reveals the fibrous innards of the bracket, which can then be removed and used to start fires.

Therefore, the use of Fomes fomentarius to make fires goes back many thousands of years (at least 5,000, if that estimation is correct). Because the ‘wool’ is incredibly flammable, it can either be used to create open fires or, alternatively, create fires inside the bracket – this is achieved by burrowing into the bracket, and then packing embers into the hole. The resulting fire can last for hours, if not days, allowing for fire to be transported as people move from place to place. Such transportation of fire was, Stamets alleges, critical for our ancestors in their migration from Africa to Europe’s birch forests (where this fungus would have been found in abundance).

In more recent times, the invention of gunpowder saw a surge in demand for Fomes fomentarius. This was because it was considered to be the best source of punk (no, not this sort of punk), which was necessary in igniting gunpowder in primitive weaponry. Other fungi that can be used to start fires include Ganoderma applanatum, Phellinus igniarius, and Piptoporus betulinus.

From actual fire to the firing of weapons therefore, the tinder fungus has facilitated with man’s evolution (and, historically, man’s ability to kill). So next time you see this fungus colonising a tree, (try to) look beyond the biology, and let its presence invoke thoughts of the past.


A history of humans and the tinder fungus (Fomes fomentarius)

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