Fomes fomentarius is the Swiss army knife of the mushroom world: it has a variety of uses that are important in many different contexts. It is used by survivalists, fly fishermen, and even some hat makers. Although it isn’t edible, the mushroom is considered medicinal. Humans have used F. fomentarius for well over 5,000 years (more about that later) and probably much longer than that. The polypore grows from dead or dying trees and is shaped like a slightly irregular horse’s hoof. It has a variety of common names, which is not surprising when you consider its many uses. The two most widely used names are “Tinder Polypore” and “Hoof Fungus.”
fungi that have had an impact on human history
Phellinus igniarius is probably the most dangerous regularly-consumed mushroom. By itself, the mushroom is pretty much useless. However, many Native American groups discovered that the ashes of igniarius will increase the buzz of chewing tobacco. Today, this practice is particularly widespread among Native Alaskans. Despite attempts by health agencies to discourage this practice, usage rates are still above 50%.
Across the globe, Amanita muscaria (the “Fly Agaric”) is the go-to mushroom for connecting humans with the divine. I will forego describing this mushroom, since I have already done that in FFF#069. Fortunately, you are familiar with this toadstool. It is the mushroom with a red cap covered in white dots, with white gills underneath, and supported by a white stipe. Probably about 90% of mushroom art is based on this mushroom, so you have definitely seen it around (for example: in Mario games, Disney’s Fantasia, lawn decorations, and Christmas ornaments). Aside from the visual aesthetic the mushroom provides in your daily life, muscaria has had a deep and lasting impact on a variety of cultures around the world, from Hinduism to Siberian shamans to Santa Claus.
In celebration of Independence Day, I have decided to discuss a fungus-related event which significantly impacted the history of the United States (Don’t worry; I will get to the remaining mushroom toxins in the next few weeks). America is a country of immigrants, so on the day that we celebrate the founding of our country, it only seems fitting that we take a moment to remember how immigration has shaped our history.
Imagine for a moment that it is the late 17th century and you live in rural America. Your day starts off like any other day: you wake up, have breakfast, and begin working on your farm. However, before too long your daughter starts behaving oddly. At first she just seems agitated, but her symptoms quickly escalate. She convulses, hides under the table, yells unintelligibly, and complains of a prickly sensation in her arms and legs. Terrified, you call for the town doctor. The doctor has never seen a disease like this before and cannot find anything physically wrong with your daughter. After a while, he comes up with the only possible cause: witchcraft. Just then, one of your neighbors bursts in, looking for the doctor. His daughter has been exhibiting the same symptoms! You look at his frightened face and realize what you have to do: in order to protect...
Literature Connection: “A Glow in the Dark” from Gary Paulsen’s Woodsong [text here]. I remember reading this short story for an English class in grade school, probably sometime in October. It was only after re-reading this story for this post that I realized how much of the story had stuck with me over the past 7 to 11 years. Maybe now I know I found it so compelling. We were most likely learning about suspense at the time, which is why I decided to use this story for the Fungus Fact Friday post before Halloween. After reading this story and my explanation, you should never again question whether or not fungi can be scary.