Mushrooms were among the earliest survival essentials of man. Otzi, the Ice Man, had two mushrooms with him. One, the Tinder Polypore (Fomes fomentarius), used for firestarting and the other, the Birch Polypore (Piptoporus betulinus), was quite possibly being carried for medicinal reasons. The fire-starting and fire-carrying properties of Tinder Polypore and others like Chaga (Inonotus obliquus) have been well known since ancient times.
As punk, dried Polypores can be lit and hold the ember very well. It is for this reason that their benefits begin with the first spark of the fire, which will stay aglow easily on good punk. Tinder Polypore, Artist Conk (Ganoderma applanatum), and others have a felty interior when the hard fruiting bodies are broken open. These mushrooms are also called conks, shelf mushrooms, and bracket fungi and are perennial, developing layer upon layer, year after year. This type of mushroom is very good for tinder. The felt can be teased with your knife. There are other types of shelf mushrooms that are not perennial. Often, they will be more moist and fleshing, or otherwise maybe not the best for tinder… perhaps because of their texture. Also, there are Polypores that aren’t shelf mushrooms.
Polypores (many-pored, or many-little-holes) produce their spores in tubes that are usually under the “shelf” of the mushroom, though many species take on more of the form of the “cap & stem” mushroom. They are common, seen even in winter because of the persistence of the perennial species and of the dried remains of the tougher annual species. Even as I write this, I can count several species of Polypore on my eclectic assortment of firewood piled by the wood stove – dried, so even though the wood is punkier than desired the mushrooms will burn with it quite fine. Earlier today I noticed a Polypore I am not used to seeing on a Pitch Pine (Pinus rigida), along with several other species of Polypore that I see regularly. I also saw the crumbled remains of an annual species that was edible in the fall. In fact, now that I stop to think about it, that’s a lot of Polypores for a short walk along the road and through the woods!
It is especially the Polypores that are of interest to the bushcrafter and survivalist. They are a pretty safe group for edibles. Many are not considered edible because of toughness or taste, but the majority of poisoning is relatively mild. Of course, many well-known “choice edibles” and some of the most sought after mushroom delicacies are Polypores. They have medicinal uses. Many of the most important herbal medicines come from Polypores. They can be used to start fire. Because they keep lit well and burn slow they can also be used to carry fire (potentially very useful without matches or a lighter on hand), and can also be burned for insect repellant. The dried fruit bodies, or slices of them, can be used to maintain an ember when not feeding wood to the fire. Polypores can also be used to make torches. They can be made into charcoal. They can be pounded into felt (another trait the Tinder Polypore is particularly known for). They are great for storing fish hooks. And I am sure there are countless other uses.
Mushrooms are sometimes abundant and are very important survival foods. It is an interesting thing that mycologists consider cultures to generally be either mycophobic or mycophilic – mushroom fearing or mushroom loving. Some cultures favor mushrooms that most others avoid. I have often wondered if this and the deep appreciation some cultures have for mushrooms is due to ancestors being repeatedly saved from famine by mushrooms, which has certainly happened throughout the ages.
I myself have eaten massive amounts of mushrooms, especially Polypores like Chicken of the Woods (Laetiporus spp.), Hen of the Woods (Grifola frondosa, Maitake, Sheep’s Head, etc.), and others that grow very large and are delicious. Many times I have eaten more than one meal a day that consisted primarily of mushrooms. I have often felt very revitalized when doing so, particularly during Morel (Morchella spp.) season when eating lots of Dryad’s Saddle (Polyporus squamosus), Morels, and wild vegetables. Mushrooms are very nutritious foods. Since ancient times they have been revered for their rejuvenating properties.
The all too well known problem with mushrooms as edibles is that some are deadly. Coupled with the fact that mushrooms in general are difficult to identify, eating mushrooms can clearly be risky. Do your research before starving to death so that you can be certain to take the time to seek out knowledgeable people as well as good books. There are many excellent mushroom websites.
Mushrooms can be dried. Though, it is a funny trick of nature that they tend to grow when there is more humidity and can be difficult to dry. Those in the Rocky Mountains will have a much easier time of it than I do down in the Delaware River Valley between New York and Pennsylvania. For off-grid sites, consider a solar dehydrator, such as passive solar using glass to trap heat. For sites with electricity consider one of the many commercially manufactured dehydrators, or make one with a simple heating unit such as a light bulb.
The medicinal properties of mushrooms have been getting increased attention lately, though they were well-known before the modern world. Many of the medicinal uses of mushrooms pertain to first-aid care, so this subject is well worth learning for the survivalist. If the notion of medicinal mushrooms seems strange, consider that out first antibiotic drug, penicillin, is fungal.
Indeed, primary traits among the medicinal mushrooms are antimicrobial and immune-boosting properties. Polypores in particular, like Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor) and Agarikon (Fomitopsis officinalis), are known for benefiting immunity and fighting off pathogens. They are used for lung ailments, respiratory infections, systemic infections, cancer, and even auto-immune diseases. As in the case with Otzi, ancient people all over the world have probably recognized the medicinal benefits of mushrooms. Today they remain primary ingredients in herbal medicine. Many cultures have long-held reverence for medicinal mushrooms. China, for instance, has an extensive and ancient lore surrounding Ganoderma spp., called Lingzi, which means “Longevity Mushroom” or “Spiritual Mushroom” just as the Japanese name, Reishi, does. For a well-researched reference on many species of medicinal mushrooms see The Fungal Pharmacy by Robert Rogers.
While Reishi is too tough and strong tasting to be eaten (rather, it is decocted into a “tea” or broth), many medicinals are good food. Maitake (Grifola frondosa) is another name that seems to reflect a long-found reverence. In Japanese it means “Dancing Mushroom”, which some say is because it was worth so much (so revered were such medicinal mushrooms) in ancient Japan that you would dance for joy upon finding one. Or, perhaps if you were suffering from a life threatening illness that Maitake was known to cure you would have even more reason to dance. Locally, Grifola is one of the most commonly picked mushrooms, known as Sheep’s Head or Ram’s Head – largely an Appalachian name. American field guides and grocery stores (this one is also cultivated) usually call it Hen-of-the-Woods. It is so abundant in certain Oak forests that people will often eat more than their fill and still have plenty to dry, can, or freeze.
Mushrooms even have antifungal properties. If this seems strange, consider that you are protected by pathogens by your skin. Fungus has no such barrier, but must still protect itself against pathogens… including fungus! Fungus tends to prefer dark, damp, dirty areas where other fungus also likes to grow. Much of the immune-boosting potential of mushrooms is explained in this way.
Many mushrooms, especially certain Polypores and the Luminescent Panellus (Panellus stipticus) can be used to stop bleeding. The species name stipticus is from styptic, meaning that it is used to stop bleeding. And yes, the common name is because it glows in the dark- at least the North American variety.
Fire-Starting with Fungus
As already mentioned, mushrooms can be very good for “catching the spark” when starting fire with flint or maintaining the ember when starting with the bow drill and the like. A nice dry piece of Polypore can be used in the middle of your tinder bundle. Species with a felting interior, like the Tinder Polypore, can be fluffed into very nice tinder by scraping them with your knife to tease the fibers into fluff. While it can obviously be very helpful to have nice downy tinder, it is not always necessary as even chunks of dried Polypore can stay lit with just a spark.
Transferring a “coal” from bow or hand drill methods is simply done by contacting the mushroom with the ember so that it keeps lit. One might even use larger flat polypores underneath the fireboard so that the hot wood dust falls directly on the mushroom.
Polypores are like punk, meaning that they stay lit easy. Punky wood (dry and rotten) might very well stay lit for hours from only a spark or ember, but generally wood requires sufficient heat to keep burning or it goes out. Polypores can stay lit for many hours, often slowly burning from just a small ember until all the mushroom is burned up. This has several uses. Such as in primitive times, lit Polypores can be bound in leaves and bark so that the fire could be carried to the next spot. I have also maintained embers in the firepit by setting in them a piece of Polypore during times when I did not desire to build up the fire by adding more wood. Obviously, the standard rule is to keep watch on a fire at all times, but we are talking survival here. Perhaps, you are lost in the woods with no fire-starting implements and need to spend the day hunting, fishing, or gathering mushrooms. You certainly don’t want to lose your fire, but you don’t want to build it up either right before leaving. It could be much safer to feed the embers with mushrooms than to pile on firewood.
Mushrooms don’t have the tendency to burst into flame, even though they stay lit well. In order to produce flame, hot pitch can be poured on the Polypore and then lit to produce a torch. Alternately, clumps of pitch can be set or stuck (depending on consistency) on a Polypore and then lit. The pitch will melt down into the mushroom and this makes good fuel.
Polypores can also be made into charcoal in the same manner as making char cloth. I have used the leathery Polypores, like Turkey Tail, as well as slices of thicker species like Tinder Polypore and Reishi. I usually use tins, such as old Altoids tins, to fill with the mushrooms and then place on the hot coals until smoking ceases. Then remove, let cool, and add to your tinder box for later fire-starting.
Fiber from Polypores
Tinder Polypore can be made into felt. This can be done by boiling and pounding the interior portion (which looks felty even when fresh). A friend of mine has hats made of the felt, similar to that worn by the famous mycologist Paul Stamets. I have also seen purses and other crafts from the felt. It might be a stretch to consider making an outfit out of Tinder Polypores in a survival scenario. Small pouches and such, on the other hand, could be very realistic and handy.
At the New Jersey Mycological Association’s yearly Fungus Fest they set up a paper-making station. Violet Tooth Polypores (Trichaptum biforme) and other similar mushrooms are blended in water in order to produce a fibrous mush that is strained, pressed, and dried to produce a sturdy craft paper. Violet Tooth Polypores work well for fiber extraction because they are thin, like the well-known medicinal Turkey Tail and other mushrooms that comprise the “leathery” group of Polypores.
Taking Care of Tools with Polypores
Pieces of dried Polypores can work great for storing fish hooks. I like to slice the fresh mushroom into thick strips before drying them. This makes them handy for decocting into medicine, for stashing in tinder boxes, and for piercing a selection of fish hooks into in attempt to keep a tackle box orderly. It also makes them ready for making charcoal if, for instance, they are cut so that they fit into an Altoids box or some other vessel that can be used to make charcoal. Have a line-up of fish hooks in a small rectangle of Polypore makes it easy to grab a few hooks to throw in your pocket or in your sack. If it keeps dry, you’ll even have fire-starting material with you. If it gets wet, just toss it – you have plenty more stashed away.
Apparently Birch Polypore can be used for stropping. An alternate name commonly cited for the Birch Polypore (Piptoporus betulinus) is Razor Strop. I have never tried it, but the dried fruiting bodies certainly seem to be the correct consistency (usually leather is used for stropping).