Horsehoof fungus – Fomes formentarius

Flanders Moss NNR

Jane Petrie, our blog editor, has been looking closely at one of the fungi that can be seen at Flanders Moss:

We are just past the shortest day of the year, when we all naturally crave the warmth and the bright light of a real fire.  And in this, we are no different at all from our distant ancestors for whom fire was warmth, comfort, a means to cook, and often the difference between life and death.  The hearth or fireplace in Latin is ‘focus’ – over how many centuries has the fire been the focal point of a campsite or a room? How many religions have a festival featuring fire at its heart at this time of year – can you imagine Christmas without candles (or their modern successors, the twinkly lights)?  For us, light and warmth can come at the flick of a switch but for our predecessors this, like almost everything else in life, could only be achieved after a lot of skill, hard work and effort.  And hoof fungus, Fomes formentarius, found growing on birch trees on Flanders Moss and elsewhere was an invaluable tool in both creating fire and in keeping the embers going so it seems like an apt time of year to write about it.

Hoof fungus - 2

Horse hoof fungus growing on Birch at Flanders Moss

Hoof fungus are wonderful things – amazing to look at from all angles and absolutely fascinating.  Fomes formentarius is also known as False tinder fungus, to differentiate it from Inonotus obliquus, which is sometimes known as (true) Tinder Fungus.  The amazing hoof like brackets are the fruiting body of the fungus and are perennial.  They grow steadily, adding a growth ring each year and can live as long as 30 years. Because they grow slowly and live for many years, restraint is advised in collecting them.  The fungus I got to experiment with came from Flanders, from birch trees that had to be removed as part of bog management – and a second very large example of fungus was found having been knocked off by a visitor.

The outside layer of the bracket is covered in a tough bark like material and the underside of the bracket has pores. Between the pore tubes and the outer layer is the spongy trama layer and it’s this layer that is used to made ‘amadou’.

The leather like amadou under the outer bark can, in its simplest form, be fluffed up and used as tinder.  It’s not simple or easy to do though even when working on a freshly harvested bracket: the fibres feel like something between leather or felt and are remarkably tough to get at or then to fluff up, even with a hatchet.  (Lots and lots of videos on YouTube of outdoorsy types tackling this task, ending up with sweat dripping off their noses and getting a jolly good workout to boot as they struggle through the outer layers to separate out the trama).  When dried and fluffed this layer will catch and hold a spark produced from striking flint and iron pyrites together and it is thought that people have used this fungus for this purpose for as long as 3, 500 years.  The amadou  will smolder – in a remarkably hot way, if that doesn’t seem too much of a contradiction in terms – but won’t burst into flame  and in this way, the embers could be transported to be used later, perhaps even carried within the body of a fungus.  The embers could be added to kindling, such as dried grass or bracken fronds or silver birch bark, and with skillful blowing the kindling will catch and flame.    Birch bark torches could be made by wrapping a coil of birch bark (wonderful stuff in itself), packed with fine, dry materials and some smoldering amadou.

More sophisticated amadou can be produced by simmering the trama layer in birch wood ash and water (a lye solution) and then dried out and mashed.  The resultant material can be beaten flat and used for tinder, for keep fishing flies dry or even pulverized to produce pounce, the powder once used to dry up ink on freshly written letters. There are even historical references to amadou sheets being made into hats – although I have to say I marvel at the ability and patience of anyone to do this given the effort involved in extracting it (and as an aside I am also wondering why anyone would want a water absorbing hat…but perhaps the fibres were then further treated to waterproof them somehow).

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Large fungus – about 1ft across – #attempt2

With the lovely examples of fungus from Flanders, I ‘set to’ with my hatchet and had a go at extracting the trama layer myself.  It’s jolly hard work.  The first fungus I got, I stupidly popped onto a heater thinking to dry them out…however, this is entirely the wrong thing to do as it’s easier to extract the trama layer from fresh, damp fungus.  Attempt 2, with a fresh and very large fungus, I did succeed in separating the layer and drying it out- but unfortunately did not manage to persuade it to catch any sparks from my striker.  I did light some amadou to see how long it would molder and I can vouch that it does smolder for a long time with really hot embers.  And while I didn’t manage to make it catch a spark , it was fascinating trying, and as I have plenty left I can have another go.  But I’m jolly glad I live in an era of electricity with light and heat ‘on tap’ because even having the merest go at tackling something like amadou confirms what a tough life our ancestors had.

For those interested in birch bark fungus and their uses, a fascinating read can be found here about the individual we know only as Otzi.  This is going ‘off track’ from topic, both in terms of geography and specific fungus species but as both live on birch I feel them close enough and simply too interesting to miss out given the astounding ‘window to the past’ Otzi’s remains and possessions, including birch fungus and birch bark, give.

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