Tom Volk's Fungus of the Month for December 2001

This month's fungus is Fomes fomentarius, the tinder polypore, also known as touchwood, punk, hoof fungus, amadou, or Amadouvier.
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Fomes fomentarius Christmas decoration This month's fungus is a polypore that grows on wood, mostly on birches, throughout the temperate northern hemisphere. It has some interesting human uses also.

This particular polypore is usually hoof-shaped and perennial, almost always found on birch trees, where is causes a white rot. It's probably a long-term heart rot pathogen. eventually killing the tree. I won't go into the details of polypore identification here, but you can read about that subject on this page. Because the fruiting bodies are present year-round, they can be picked at any season and made into craft items, such as the one you see to the left. This fruiting body has been hollowed out (i.e. the pore layers removed by scraping them out with a knife), turned upside down, and made into a planter. If you find them in the right shape you can even nail or otherwise attach them flat to the wall. I have also heard rumors of this fungus being carved into Christmas ornaments in parts of Scandinavia, but I cannot find reference to this online. If you know something about these carvings, please send me an email.. I'd love to see a picture of one of these ornaments, and would love even more to have one if you know where I can get it.

Fomes fomentarius four fruiting bodiesMore importantly, though, the tinder polypore has been used as a tinder for starting fires. I don't know all the details, but small pieces of the fruiting body are struck with a flint to make sparks. Probably more important than that, the fruiting body can be hammered flat into something like felt. This felt can be kept smoldering with very little heat. It is thought to have been used to transport fire from one place to another before matches were invented. In fact Fomes fomentarius is one of the fungi the "Iceman" had with him. You remember the Oetzi Iceman, don't you? You can read more about the iceman's fungi in this paper: Peintner, U, R. Poder, and T. Pümpel, 1998. The Iceman's fungi. Mycological Research 102: 1153-1162. Much of the information in the next couple paragraphs is derived from that paper.

The Iceman, picture from the BBC The Iceman, sometimes called Oetzi or a variety of other colorful names, is an incredibly well-preserved 5000 year old Neolithic man found in 1991 in a glacier near the border of Austria and Italy. In his pouch was a black felt-like substance that Peintner et al. cleverly deduced was the loosely interwoven hyphae from the fruiting bodies of the tinder polypore. Also in this pouch were "several small sharpened flint stones, a small drill-like piece of flint, and slender bone-tool." The fungus must have been very important to the iceman for him to carry it in a special pouch for such a long distance. You can read more about the iceman at the website of The South Tyrol Archaeological Museum in Italy, where the iceman is on display and is being further studied. You can also read this story by the BBC.

Other uses for Fomes fomentarius, as described by Peintner et al. are: two Fomes fruiting bodies-- or are there two?  how did this happen?

Using modern methods, the tinder polypore has been shown to contain iodine, fomentariol and other substances that really are active against bacteria and against tumors.

Piptoporus betulinusAccording to that same paper by Peintner et al., the iceman also carried another polypore with him-- Piptoporus betulinus, shown to the left. Coincidentally, Piptoporus also grows almost exclusively on birch. The iceman had two necklaces made with pieces of Piptoporus strung on them. It's likely he was carrying them to be used for various medicinal purposes or possibly for razor strops. You can read more about them in the same paper by Peintner et al. Maybe someday Piptoporus will be Fungus of the Month.

Styrofomes, a cup fungusSo what characters are used to distinguish the genus Fomes? At one time, Fomes was a catch-all genus for any perennial polypore, especially the hoof-shaped ones. In modern usage Fomes is restricted to white rot fungi with a trimitic hyphal system, clamped generative hyphae, often with large flattened heavily branched binding hyphae and large cylindrical spores. For an explanation of those term see this page, which is an introduction to the characters used to identify polypores. In modern terms, Fomes fomentarius is the only true Fomes in North America north of Florida.

To the right is a close relative of Fomes that you might commonly find in the woods, especially in heavily populated areas. Of course it's in a different genus, Styrofomes. And of course you know that this is one of the cup fungi...

After I had this page up I got this email from Pat Leacock of the Field Museum in Chicago about his recent sighting of this fungus:

"I was up on the wooden train platform this morning and spotted something. After seeing your December FOTM page I immediately recognized it as a type of Styrofomes. I carefully picked it up. The operculum and most of the gleba (?) was gone, just a bit of brown goo. It had an odor of coffee and cream. So I'm thinking that maybe these cup structures are adapted for dispersal by bipedal mammals. Has anyone studied this? "

Thanks for writing, Pat! There are many studies yet to be undertaken by mycologists!

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed learning something about the tinder polypore today. There's always some interesting history about every fungus. The Iceman sure seemed to like it!

If you have anything to add, or if you have corrections or comments, please write to me at

This page and other pages are © Copyright 2001 by Thomas J. Volk, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.

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