How to Use Fungi to Start a Fire

If you have birch or black Locust trees growing near you, then you probably have some very flammable species of fungi also growing nearby.

A classic fire starting tinder of the northeast is the fungus that grows on Birch trees. The species Fomes fomentarius is also known as horse hoof fungus, tinder fungus, tinder conk, and tinder polypore. The species produces fist-sized polypore fruit bodies that are shaped like a horse's hoof. They vary in color from a silvery gray to almost black, though you'll usually find them in shades of grey or brown. The dead dry fruiting bodies of this fungus can be shaved into pieces or ground into dust to assist with friction fire spark longevity, or they can be cut into flat chips to be burned as a char cloth substitute in flint-and-steel fire making.

Another fire fungus, seen more in the Mid Atlantic and southeast, is the species Phellinus robineae (better known as cracked cap polypore), a shelf fungus that ranges in size from an egg to a large calzone. The cap on this tree-growing mushroom is a wide semicircle, flat on the bottom and hoof-shaped on top. The upper surface is yellowish-brown to brown, but it becomes black and cracked as it ages. It is found on dying or dead black locust trees.

Dead, dry pieces of this fire fungus can be used in the same ways as horse hoof fungus, and they also make a nice long match. Just grab a dead cracked cap polypore, get one edge of the shelf fungus smoldering with a coal from your fire, and carry it for an hour or two in a fire proof container to transport the live ember to your new campfire location.

When using either fungus as a friction-fire coal extender, add the dust to the coal while it's in the notch or groove in which the coal was formed. Coal extender can also be added to the core of a tinder bundle, or added to a coal after it is in the tinder bundle.

One of my favorite Cherokee fire building stories revolves around someone who has let his fire go out. This taboo put him in a position to require the assistance of the "Medicine Man", who took the unlucky person out into the woods and made him a new fire, twirling up a coal by spinning a stick on the surface of a locust fungus while the fungus was still attached to the tree! And if you were wondering, yes, the Cracked Cap will make a functional fire board for bow-and-drill fire making.

Learn more about tinder and fire making: