It’s bitterly cold today, the kind of weather that makes me assume my memory of last week must have been a dream. Dark clouds scud past in little gangs and hail mercilessly for minutes, stinging exposed skin and rendering fingers rigid with the cold, before speeding off to reek havoc on some patch five or six townlands over. It’s a peculiar thing to have them stalk you through a forest; one minute all is blue sky and birds flitting through the branches, the next a gust of freezing air shattering and bouncing sharp on your face with a sudden eerie rush silencing song before it.
Today I was mostly just out to see some forest and walk, but my side motive was hunting fungi, with a particular interest in any traces of two – chaga (a hymenochaetales found all year round, not currently sure how commonly in Ireland) and Hoof fungus, or Tinder bracket, (a polypore, I’m also currently unsure how widespread in Ireland). 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. Here is tinder advertising itself very clearly as fire, how awesome is that? It also gets heralded as having significant antioxidant properties and there all manner of health related suggestions, but my interest is for fire experimentation. It favours cold, circumpolar boreal deciduous forests, so I’m a bit pessismistic about my chances. 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 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.
The birches in the Old Boardwalk wood (AKA Doorey Wood, I have since learned) can sometimes 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 and at the moment there’s a nest in the area I would rather not disturb. It’s not going anywhere in the mean time.
While I was looking there were other fungi on birches and birch logs to look at. They’re a bit old so it’s hard to get a good look at them and see what their underneath was like when fresh, but the birch and fungi totem is fantastic all by itself. The standing birch pole is a dead birch, there is no top on it. Shelf or bracket fungi like these usually indicate decaying wood
I’m reasonably certain this is Birch Polypore (Piptoporus betulinus) even without getting to properly look at the underneath up close. I came across other examples – google photos tells me it was January – in the same wood. 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. 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.””
Possibly?? I’ve heard a few different suggestions as to why he was carrying it, but there is no doubt that he thought it was important. I had originally read (I will dig out the source again later), that he had some birch polypore and some of the Fomes fomentarius, the Tinder Fungus or Hoof Fungus. One suggestion is that the polypore smoulders very slowly, enabling the transportation of fire over distance to reignite at a chosen destination, and that, to me, seems like a much more plausible reason.
When they are young they are light in colour and darken to brown or grey on top with age. As you can see they have small circular pores (hence polypore) instead of gills. They are surprisingly tough things.
They sometimes can get confused with my favourite, Dryad’s Saddles polyporus squamosus (below) I mean how cool is that as a name?! I think I can trace my interest in fungi from finding these last year and being kind of astounded at them, and the name sold me. these are supposed to be reasonably tasty if you find them young – usual terms and conditions apply, be *very* sure about any fungi you even think about consuming in any way.
The cold eventually chased me out of Deerey and home to start writing this and then not post it til quite some days later. On the way home I checked in on the local tadpoles and so the existential crisis of who the photo is of begins..