Anyone who wanders in the woods has seen bracket fungi, those odd banded shelves that grow in arcs from standing snags and deadfall trunks. Most of them belong to the family of Polypores, whose members are composed of thousands of tiny tubes growing tight together on a vertical plane. The fungi hang on to dead or dying wood through a network of parasitic, thread-like roots called rhizomes that slowly work to decompose their host. Like any mushroom, the brackets emerge as soft, spongy masses. Many are edible, and they shed millions of microscopic spores during their fruiting time. But usually by the time people notice polypores they are tough and woody, often harder than the log they are attached to.
In the forests of Pend Oreille County, by far the best host for bracket fungi are birch trees. Birches grow around the edges of many wetlands, from low to medium elevations, but also sprout in patches on hillsides with an extra hint of moisture. They are a short-lived tree, prone to the diseases that make them easy fodder for the life-sucking rhizomes of the fungus. The curly, peelable birch bark outlasts the sapwood, so that after a tree crashes down bracket fungi often multiply up and down its length.
The species of bracket fungus most commonly seen on our local birches is Fomes fomentarius, better known as horse’s hoof fungus or tinder conk. The brackets emerge as a white foamy mass that hardens and expands from a slender top down to a broad, flat growing margin. From both side and bottom views, they really do mirror the form of a horse’s hoof. Like most brackets, these fungi are perennial, continuing to grow as long as the tree can feed them. Each year they add a new dark-colored line to the bottom of the hoof shape. As long as it is alive, the growing margin of each hoof remains velvety soft, and distinctly cool to the touch.
These birch polypores have a circumpolar distribution–they can be found in any northern forest around the globe, across Asia, Europe, and North America. That range connects them through time and place in a way that reflects the movements of a host of different cultures. The common name conk, applied to many species of bracket fungi, compares their shapes and colors to those of the elegantly curved conch seashells. Originally derived from a Greek word associated with ocean shells, many Inland Northwest school kids today still apply the term conk to all hard fungi growing in the woods.
The same tinder conks that we see attached to birch trees have been used to start fires all around the world for untold generations. The Latin genus name, Fomes, means tinder, as in flammable kindling. Long ago people discovered that if you pound on this polypore the tubes separate into fibers that can catch a spark and keep it going. The early fur men who came to our part of the world carried tinder conk in their tobacco pouches, but that did not surprise the local tribes they met–a Salish word for the fungus has been translated as ‘burning coal’ because of the way an ember from a fire, when placed in the center of the growing margin of a freshly plucked tinder conk, will smolder for hours. In a world before flint and steel, this would have been the most effective way to transport your fire from camp to camp.
In the 1970s Martin Louie, an elder of the Colville-Okanagan tribes, described how the tribes used the heat retention properties of tinder conk as a treatment for arthritis. The fungus was picked, pounded until mushy, then applied as a poultice to the affected area. When hot towels were wrapped around the spot, the pounded fibers would absorb their heat and apply it to the affliction. Louie also confirmed earlier ethnographic reports that the tribes would place a small piece of ignited ‘burning coal’ directly on a moistened, aching joint. As the fungus fragment smoldered down to the skin it would ‘pop,’ and the ache was often soothed. Both these methods call to mind the variety of heating pads and liniments so often used today for similar complaints.
The Latin species name for tinder conk, fomentarius, means ‘dressing for wounds,’ a fact reflected in many standard textbooks of European medicine. Their myriad tubes, pounded and separated, have the absorbent qualities of a handy sponge, and the tannic acids present in the woody fibers provide an antiseptic action. More than two thousand years ago, the Greek physician Hippocrates described the use of birch polypores as a means to stop bleeding and cauterize infections. In France, dentists still keep a supply of what they call ‘amadou’ on hand for packing in the socket of a freshly pulled tooth. Amadou is nothing more the horse’s hoof fungus we know pounded into fibers, dipped into a solution of saltpeter, and allowed to dry.
But what is two thousand years? The Ice Man who washed out of a glacier in the Italian Alps a few years ago died five thousand years before the present. Beside his famous brass ax, bow and arrow, and remarkable clothing, he carried with him a small leather pouch. Inside the pouch were the ground-up fibers of tinder conk, at the ready for anything from an everyday fire to emergency medical treatment. The little horse hooves, so common a part of our local scene, have been a part of traveler’s kits across the ages.
by Jack Nisbet
Jack Nisbet is a naturalist and writer who lives in Spokane, Washington. This article first appeared in the 2004 Fall issue of Diggings Newsletter. Nisbet’s most recent book, Ancient Places, is now available in paperback. For more information visit www.jacknisbet.com