The tinder conk (scientific name Fomes fomentarius) is the popular name of a fungus pathogen with a large distribution that can be found in Europe, North America, Asia and Africa. Tinder conk is known for the very large fruiting bodies. These are usually brown but can also be grey or black, with a shape resembling a horse hoof. It infects trees by passing through areas where the bark is broken, causing rot and the development of the fruiting bodies. Tinder conk acts initially as a parasite but continues to live long after the host tree is dead, feeding on the decaying wood.
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Tinder conk is not edible but used to be very important in the production of amadou, a type of tinder. This material was traditionally used for a variety of other items, such as clothes. Four pieces of the mushroom, used as tinder, were found on the famous Ötzi the Iceman, a mummified human who lived 5000 years ago. Tinder conk was considered both useful as tinder and unwanted as a pest. It was also used in traditional medicine.
The fruit bodies of tinder conk can be very large, with a length between 5 and 45 cm, a width of 3 to 25 cm and a thickness that varies between 2 and 25 cm. It connects with the host tree on a broad surface. The typical shape is similar to a hoof but some specimens resemble a bucket.
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Fruiting bodies of tinder conk display very broad ridges with a concentric pattern, while the edges are rounded and blunt. The flesh of tinder conk has a brown color similar to cinnamon, with a fibrous and tough texture. It usually has a brown, grey or black surface, with a tough texture and a very strong woody consistency. The margins become white when the mushroom grows. Fruiting bodies are protected by a very hard crust, with a thickness of 1 or 2 mm, but the flesh itself is also very tough. Cream-colored round pores are found on the underside of young specimens, they become dark when touched and turn brown with age. The tubes have a length of 2 to 7 mm and a small diameter, with 2 or 3 of them on every square mm.
Depending on the region, both the size of the fruit body and its color can vary. Colors of tinder conk start from a white-silvery tone all the way to black, with grey and brown being the most common. Black specimens have been considered for a long time to be a separate species, named Fomes nigricans, but scientists later realized they were just a color variety. Fruit bodies that grow on the southern side of trees in the Northern Hemisphere have a lighter color, as well as those found at lower altitude or latitude. It is impossible to clearly distinguish these varieties from a scientific point of view; the different color is strictly an effect of the environment and various other external factors, not necessarily genetics.
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Tinder conk has a very attractive smell but is inedible, with a tough flesh and an acrid taste. Spores are oblong shaped and have a yellow color, similar to lemons. Even if it can't be eaten, the species has been considered to be very valuable by humans since ancient times.
The fungus can be turned into a powder and used as a chest protector. It is a popular sniffing powder in Siberia, either on its own or mixed with tobacco.
Another old use was as a cushion for pins and needles, to protect them from rust. It can serve as a good natural material for mounting insects for display. The book Species Plantarum written by Carl L. Within in 1753 mentions the species but mistakenly includes it in several distinct genera. The flesh of Fomes fomentarius is burned during the night on the Japanese island of Hokkaido, as part of an ancient ritual believed to repel ghosts.
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Tinder conk is one of the polypores with proven medicinal benefits, attested by modern science. These mushrooms have been used to treat various conditions for thousands of years. A polypore fungus was used in treatment by the Agaria of Samaria, according to the ancient Greek Philosopher Dioscorides. In the year 200 AD, the species is recorded under the name Agaricum. Fomes fomentarius or the closely related Fomitopsis oficina was used to combat very serious diseases such as tuberculosis during the Middle Ages.
In the traditional medicine of Europe, the species is used as a treatment for hemorrhoids, as well as a counter for issues of the bladder. It was also useful for stopping bleeding during surgery and considered to be an effective counter for dysmenorrhea.
The old medical system of India employed tender conks for their diuretic effects. In addition, it was prescribed to calm nerves and to stimulate bowel movements, as a laxative.
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In China, tinder conk was used as a cure for throat cancer, a potentially lethal disease. It is thought to be effective against other forms of cancer as well, such as tumours of the uterus and stomach.
This mushroom is rich in betulinic acid, a compound with very powerful antiviral effects. It is such a promising substance that it's currently investigated as a possible weapon against the deadly HIV virus. It is also a source of piptamine, a compound with very powerful antiseptic and antibacterial properties. It is known to kill the very dangerous E. coli, as well as a number of other bacterial strains. Because of its antiseptic benefits, the mushroom was used as a treatment for tuberculosis in the time of the Roman Empire.
In antiquity, tinder conk was known for its ability to stop bleeding and widely used by the doctors of the time. It was very easy to apply and able to absorb a large quantity of blood. This was especially useful for surgeons, during medical interventions. It might have also been used to cauterize wounds, according to the writings of Hippocrates in the 5th century BC. For these reasons, it was also known as the surgeon's agaric.
A very interesting use of the species is attested in ancient Chinese medicine, where it was considered a cure for several forms of cancer. This has attracted considerable interest from modern scientists, who are always looking for a cure for this disease.
Doctors have established that the ability of the body to resist cancer is directly connected to the strength of the immune system. Cancer cells and their expansion are inhibited by the mechanisms of a healthy immune system.
Angiogenesis inhibition is another very useful effect of Fomes Fomentarius. Some chemicals in its composition prevent the development of the blood vessel network that supports and feeds cancerous cells. In order to expand, tumours need a massive and constant supply of blood. Without it, their development is severely limited.
Tinder conk mushrooms provide a number of other compounds that are able to reduce the risk of cancer or slow down its proliferation, by decreasing the motility of cells that make up tumours. They are also able to reduce the growth rate of tumours by altering the morphology of cells. While being harmless to healthy body cells, these compounds have a very toxic effect on mutated ones.
Tinder conk is a common mushroom with a very large area of distribution. It is frequently found in Europe, as well as all of Africa, eastern North America and many parts of Asia where forests are found. Tinder conk is typically encountered solitary but a single tree can sometimes host several fruiting bodies. Hardwoods are the most common host but it can be found on other tree species. Birch is the host of choice in northern forests, while beech is the most common in southern regions. The mushroom prefers oaks in the Mediterranean area. Other possible hosts are the willow, alder, hornbeam, sycamore, maple, cherry, hickory, lime tree or poplar. In exceptional cases, tinder conk can grow on conifers and other softwoods. Temperatures between 27 and 30 degrees Celsius allow the fastest rate of growth.
As already mentioned, many species of trees can serve as hosts for tinder conk mushrooms. If you plan to harvest them in your area, you will quickly identify what is the preferred choice, so it will be easy to look for the fruiting bodies.