Just Another Fungus…

...Or a Miracle of Nature?

A preparation that is anti-inflammatory, will kill certain bacteria including E.Coli, is antiviral and is apparently capable of inhibiting some types of cancer – a new miracle drug surely?

In fact extracts from a humble bracket fungus found on birch trees have been shown, in the lab at any rate, to have all these properties. Chemicals found in the Birch Bracket will also kill some species of parasitic worm and may be effective as slug bait. Our ancestors valued its medicinal properties and Oetzi the 5,000yr old iceman found in the Tyrol, not only had dried Tinder Bracket fungus with him, probably as a fire-starting kit, but also carried a piece of Birch Bracket fungus secured by a pair of hide strips, possibly to make into a kind of tea as a remedy for minor ailments.

This annual fungus only produces spores in the spring and summer, but the fruit body or bracket persists on the tree all year round and is easier to spot in the winter when its host, the birch, is leafless. It is parasitic on live trees, usually getting a foothold on trees weakened by age or environmental damage. The wide distribution of the Birch Bracket is the main reason why birch trees rarely survive more than 150 years because the fungus will eventually kill its host, although it will itself survive for some time after the death of the tree.

It appears at first as a rounded white bulge pushing through the bark which gains it the common name of Birch Conk. Later the bulge develops into a brown kidney-shaped plate up to 25cms across and 6cms thick, which protrudes from the tree, often several feet up the trunk. Underneath, the pore-bearing surface starts off white and browns as it ages.

The Birch Bracket is very common and smells temptingly mushroomy. Although it isn’t poisonous and you could eat it, even when young it is rubbery and bitter and old specimens taste worse still and resemble dense cork. This cork-like quality gave rise to other practical uses for the flesh of the Birch Bracket – in the past it was made into stoppers for snuff boxes and polishing material for the watch-making industry.

If all these various qualities didn’t make it versatile enough our ancestors exploited it in another way. The Birch Bracket was also referred to as the Razor Strop fungus. In the days when men regularly shaved with a cut-throat razor, the blade would be sharpened on a strip of leather called a strop. An alternative and apparently effective way of honing the edge was to take a piece of Birch Bracket and use the firm velvety cut surface for the purpose instead. If you then happened to cut yourself, the highly absorbent ‘strop’ could be applied to the wound to staunch the blood flow!

The Birch Bracket may be bad news for birch trees but for centuries it provided a valuable and varied resource for mankind and may do so again. Research into its potential medicinal properties continues.

Article by Maggie Chaplin (first appeared in February 2010 issue)