Long, long ago.. okay it was April-ish … I heard many excellent tales about an event called Serve it Forth, held in Polderslot. It appears to have been an event I would have enjoyed very much, featuring cooking and food related classes, and I was sorry to miss it. The bit that really made me wildly envious of people who went along though was that there was a class on Fungi used in fire lighting given by Rudolfus van Santinge/Roelof Zantingh. I’ve become extremely interested in all things forest, fungus and flora over the last few years, and any combination of these and any vaguely relevant medieval skill is like catnip.
Ever since I heard about the class and was shown some photos and some real life chaga I’ve been keeping an eye out seeing if I can spot anything that looks like what was spoken about or anything the book my awesome fighter, Lady Gytha, got for me for my birthday suggests would be in the same kind of useful bracket. My particular interest is in any traces of chaga (a hymenochaetales, found all year round, not currently sure how commonly in Ireland), Hoof fungus aka Tinder bracket, (a polypore, I’m also currently unsure how widespread in Ireland), Candle-snuff fungus (Xylariaceae) or the fabulously well named King Alfred’s Cakes (Daldinia concentrica) These have come to my attention for the magnificent reason that they make excellent natural tinder and I don’t think I can properly describe how happy stuff like this makes me.
Chaga is fascinating stuff, it looks like charred, cracked, brittle black bark and grows on birch trees where it can sometimes be mistaken for birch burls. It has a sort of orangey-red colour under the charred surface, which I find fascinating – how kind of tinder to advertise itself so clearly? It’s also said to have significant antioxidant properties and there all manner of health related suggestions, but my interest is for fire experimentation. Chaga favours cold, circumpolar boreal deciduous forests, I am somewhat pessimistic about my chances here. It has to look separate from the tree, not rounded integral to the structure of the tree – that would instead indicate a burl – and aged chaga starts to look kind of phallic, growing decidedly out from the tree. I am very fortunate to have a sample piece so I know what to look for, these photos however don’t do the orangey-red underneath proper justice in terms of colour.
There are some birches near my home and some exhibit a blackened, cracked appearance, like this one, so I thought it might be worth a look. I’m not convinced, it seems a bit flat, but it might not be long established if it did happen to be it? I will keep an eye on it anyway. This particular patch is quite high up so it will take a bit of maneuvering to properly inspect. It’s not going anywhere in the mean time.
One of the things I frequently find is Birch Polypore (Piptoporus betulinus). I’m told when it is young it is sticky if you cut a strip out the surface, and you can use it like a sticking plaster to help keep a small wound closed. As you can see they have small circular pores (hence polypore) instead of gills. They are surprisingly tough things. It is also known as razorstrop fungus and barbers used to sharpen or ‘strop’ their razor blades on strips allowed to dry and toughen to a sort of leathery consistency. Ötzi the Iceman, a mumified human preserved in Ice and over 5000 years old (https://www.mnn.com/lifestyle/arts-culture/blogs/11-things-you-dont-know-about-otzi) had two pieces of fungus on a neck thong, which the above article states were birch polypore, and continues to assert that he may have used them as medicine, as “the fungus, which includes both anti-inflammatory and antibacterial compounds, was highly valued for its medicinal properties. It’s also highly toxic to whipworms, a parasite discovered by researchers in Otzi’s colon. According to Science Know How, the birch fungus when consumed by Otzi would have “killed at least some of the intestinal parasites and purged his bowels of their eggs.” Other schools of thought group the birch polypore and the Tinder Fungus or Hoof Fungus Fomes fomentarius as having similar purposes, part of a firekit which included flint and pyrite. The dead dry fruiting bodies of this fungus can be shaved into pieces or ground into dust to assist with keeping a friction fire spark alive better and longer, or they can be cut into flat chips to be burned as a char cloth substitute in flint-and-steel fire making. Birch polypore is also reputed to smoulder very slowly, enabling the transportation of fire over distance to reignite at a chosen destination.
As for hoof or tinder fungus, I’m not sure if I’ve successfully found any in Ireland, though there were some bracket fungus I found in the Slieve Bloom mountains that I would be prepared to test as such. I’m pretty certain I found some while I was wandering around forests in Finland at Cudgel War. (Cudgel War was awesome, truly, I recommend it with all my heart) This can be used as I described above, but the usual method is to make ‘red amadou’ with it, by soaking or boiling – depending on what methods you read – young samples of the fungus cut into strips, beaten and stretched.
Turns out I think I’ve been seeing King Alfred’s Cakes (Daldinia concentrica) for years without really registering what they were or even that they were fungus, really.
While ‘King Alfred’s Cakes’ in my favourite name, they’re also called cramp balls and coal fungus. They’re easily found on any dead wood, especially fallen ash branches. They tend to be ball shaped and helpfully alert us to their potential use by looking a little like coal or charcoal. The dark black ones are best and need to be very dry and light. They spark and smoulder easily enough but the smell isn’t for everyone. Exposing the smouldering ember to a blast from a bellows or swinging it in the air will make a flame catch.
Haven’t had any luck tracking down candle snuff fungus yet, alas.