As winter seems to drag on and on, all mushroom foragers seems to be stuck in some kind of ‘no mans land’ of woe and sorrow… Hey ho!
But many fungi are perennial and more noticeable through the winter months. They’re easier to spot since many trees are bare and no dense foliage can get in your line of sight. And although not edible, they are worth a look. Some have good uses or properties that are quite interesting (probably not everyday use), as you’ll soon discover…
The Hoof Fungus or Tinder Bracket (Fomes fomentarius) is one of these annually persistent sights. This bracket fungus will get most people’s attention as many grow (often in groups) more or less at head height on the host tree (usually birch or beech). They’re also seen on fallen trunks and logs. It’s size is pretty substantial too. Growing up to 25cm in width and height, making it quite hard to miss!
The first thing you will notice is the familiar ‘hoof shape’ with a smooth dark grey upper zone and several layered, concentric zones below. The outer surface (crust) is almost as hard as the wood on which it grows. Go on, give it a tap! The light brown flesh within is very fibrous and quite hard too, smelling very acidic and fruity. A smooth underside shows the small light grey (sometimes light grey/brown) rounded pores, and like the upper concentric zones, the tubes also grow in several layers during the life cycle.
OK, so far this fungus seems to be pretty weird and particularly bland. But here comes the interesting stuff! Over the centuries, this has been a handy piece of nature our ancestors and die-hard survivalists alike have enjoyed to use…
To reconfirm, this bracket fungus is persistent throughout the year and very durable. One key feature is that it does not burn, but simply smolders. A hollowed out Hoof fungus was used to move (or store) burning embers that would keep for days at a time. The other English name ‘Tinder bracket’ is well founded too – When dried, the inner flesh catches a spark quite easily and can burn well – useful as a good ember (see this link for more info). A recent archaeological discovery uncovered a European Iceman who also had a use for this ‘Tinder Bracket’ -See the “Ötzi the Iceman” story here.
The fun doesn’t stop there though! Until relatively recently, a common use in Germany was the craft and creation of hats and bags, using the soft and pliable mycellial core (located inside the top-centre of the fungus). I intend to get a hat myself if they’re still out there, I must!
Just like many other fungi, there are sometimes useful medicinal uses. Centuries ago, Fomes fomentarius was widely used as a styptic to stop bleeding and as a drug to treat wounds. Even today fungi are invaluable in this area. The fascinating world of fungi never ceases to amaze me.
And before I end this post, I’d like to mention that, from general web visitor feedback and personal experience (rather than official research results), I consider this fungus be a ‘common’ species in the UK (more north than south). Several reference books have stated the main habitat to be situated in and around Scotland only, but I have found no end of these throughout Leicestershire and beyond. A recent enquiry to the ‘mushroomdiary.co.uk’ was questioning this very issue with positive ID’s from the Birmingham area. Migration and declination of fungi is a continual event, and local records are sometimes not up to date, and unfortunately there are no records at all from many areas. But on recent personal research, I’ve found that the appearance of this particular fungi is increasing throughout the UK. Which is all good stuff!