This guide is meant to give step-by-step instructions for how to both identify Fomes fomentarious, a fungi that often goes by the common names of tinder conk, hoof fungus, tinder polypore, or even ice man fungus, as well as how to process samples of the fungi into high-quality tinder.
This final product is known as "amadou," and although its most common use is for creating and holding embers for fires, other uses include dressings for wounds, absorbent packing for recently extracted teeth, and raw material for creating leather-like, waterproof fabric for hats, shoes, and clothing alike.
For the purposes of this guide, I will only be going through the most basic methods for processing amadou for use as tinder.
Step #1: Find Fomes fomentarious
This step is self-explanatory in that we can't make any amadou if we don't have a tinder conk in the first place! Tinder conk is a widely distributed, circumboreal species of fungi that is frequently encountered in the northern hardwood ecosystems of North America, Europe, and Asia as well the Mediterranean and into Northern Africa.
Fomes fomentarious Distribution (Source: https://www.cabi.org/isc/datasheet/24305#toDistributionMaps)
Tinder conks almost exclusively grow on hardwood species, though in exceptionally rare cases, it has been found to grow on some conifer species as well. Some of the most common host species in boreal regions include birch and beech trees, while oaks seem to be a preferred host substrate in the Mediterranean region.
The species is considered to be a white-rot parasite and saprotroph. Though initially sapping nutrients from the heartwood of their host while they are still alive, the fungus will continue to grow after their host has died as long as their are additional nutrients to be tapped from the substrate. For this reason, it is not uncommon to find tinder conks growing on both living and dead hardwoods.
Personally, I have found success finding samples of tinder conk by looking on the edges of low-lying wetland regions since they are common places to find both birch and beech trees.
Example of environment where tinder conk is likely to be found:
Fomes fomentarious growing on fallen hardwood:
Fomes fomentarious on standing hardwood:
Visually, one can identify the species using a few macroscopic features. The species is a member of the polypore fungal group, meaning that rather than having gills, the species distributes its reproductive spores through a series of narrow tube-like structures that open on the underside of the fungal growth. When looking at the underside of a fresh sample of tinder conk, one should see a pale-white to dull brown underside dotted with densely packed circular pores (2-5 pores per square mm).
This is a perennial species, meaning that it will add an additional layer of new growth each year to the underside of the cap. The newest growth ocuring on the underside of the cap is often pale-white and velvety to the touch when fresh, while older growth zones take on a progressively darker color and wood-like texture. Over time, these successive growth layers produce fruiting bodies that are generally hoof shaped in nature.
Mature fruitings may reach up to 20 cm or more in diameter, though samples approximately 10 cm in diameter are typically better for harvesting amadou since they are able to provide a worthwhile supply of material while also not being too woody and tough to work with.
Look-alike species include members of the Fomitopsis and Phellinus genuses (e.g. Fomitopsis pinicola and Phellinus igniarius respectively), though a careful examination of the upper cap coloration as well as chemical tests can be used to positively diffferentiate the species from one another. In the case of tinder conk, a drop of Potassium hydroxide on the upper surface of the sample will turn blood red as it reacts to the compound fomentariol.
Examples of tinder conk:
Now that we have the identified the right fungus, it's time to process the amadou!
Step #2: Setup and Tools
The tools you will need to process the amadou are:
- Sharp knife
- Small cooking pot
Optional but encouraged
- Knife sharpener
- Birch ash
- Hatchet/large knife (to split samples in half)
Once you have your samples of tinder conk, you do not need too many other tools to process the amadou, though I do recommend that you use a knife sharpener we well as protective gear for your hands. Even when freshly picked, tinder conks have a woody texture that can make it easy to your knife to catch and slip as you cut, particularly if using a dull knife. Please be careful and remember to always cut away from your body rather than towards it.
Step #3 Remove Amadou Layer from Fungus
In this step, we will identify and remove the amadou layer from the fungus. The amadou layer is located between the outermost upper layer of the fungi and the spore tube layer that makes up the core and underside of the fruiting body. I choose to split my samples in half so that I can visually see the layer of amadou before I begin to remove the outer skin and spore tubes. This can be helpful since the thickness of the amadou layer is highly variable from fruiting to fruiting and is not necessarily correlated to the overall size of the sample. By cutting the fungi in half to start, you can avoid cutting away too much material when removing the amadou and increase your overall yield.
This is where it may be helpful to use a large knife or hatchet to split the conks. Not much force is needed to split each conk, but a longer blade may offer a clearer cut.
Closeups of split conks:
Highlighting amadou layer:
The next step is to remove the outer skin as well as spore tubes. There are a few techniques to achieve this. Some people prefer to crush the fungi using a mallet in order to break up the spore tubes and more easily pry them from the amadou, while others choose to slice the skin off first. Choosing which technique to use is largely up to personal preference. I chose to slice the skin off first before then using my knife to slice out rectangular chunks of the spore tubes, being careful not to cut through the underlying amadou layer in the process.
I found that laying the fungi pore-side-down and slicing downward along the skin was a good way to remove the hard outer skin without taking away too much amadou in the process. A sharp knife if needed here.
The spore tubes can be a bit tricky to remove, though slicing them into rectangular chunks and then carefully prying them from the amadou is an effective technique for separating them. More skilled technicians than myself can remove amadou layers in singular sheets, a key skill for producing larger fabrics to be used in hats and clothing. However, this degree of precision isn't necessary for preparing amadou for tinder.
The product you are left with should be cinnamon-brown in color with a soft, velvet-like texture. This is our raw material for producing our tinder.
Step #4: Boil and Pound Amadou
The next step is to boil the amadou pieces for at least 1 hour, topping the water off as it boils away. This process helps to softer and break down the fibers of the amadou. Optionally, one may also add a handful of ash to the boiling water in order to produce a version of amadou tinder that more easily takes a spark. When preparing amadou at a campsite, many will opt to use birch ash from the fire used to boil their water. Obtaining birch twigs for the fire is often not much of an added labor since birch trees are the most common hosts for tinder conks.
After removing the amadou from the boiling water, gentling pounding the amadou using a hammer, mallet, or stone helps to both further break down the fibers as well as expel some moisture. Lightly pounding both surfaces of each piece for 20 seconds should be adequate for this step.
Step #5: Dry Amadou
Our penultimate step in producing our tinder is also the easiest. Place your processed amadou pieces in a cool, dry location for at least a day to let them dry. You can help speed this process up by placing them in front of a source of moving air such as a fan.
Once the pieces have dried, they should have soft, leather-like texture.
Dried, processed amadou:
Step #6: Scrape Amadou into Tinder Pile
At this point, all of the hard work is done. Hold a piece of processed amadou against a steady surface and use a sharp knife to scrape away at the amadou. It should produce fine, hair-like fibers that can easily be collected into a pile for use as tinder. Simply drop a spark on your pile and you will have a slow-burning ember that can then be used to light your campfire.
History of Use:
Even modest piles of amadou tinder, like the one imaged above, are capable of keeping an ember lit for at least 30 minutes with the proper care. It is because of this characteristically slow burn that larger samples of amadou can be used to transport embers for days on end between campsites. As a species, we have used this fungal species as a source of tinder for thousands of years, our best evidence of this being samples of processed amadou being found on the person of the approximately 5,000 year old mummy of Ötzi the Iceman who was discovered in the European Alps in 1991.
As Europe's eldest natural mummy, Ötzi gives researchers a glimpse into the world of the Copper Age in ancient Europe as well as how our ancestors coped with the harsh environments that they called home. The mummy now resides in Bolzano, Italy at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology where it continues to be studied.
Museum website: https://www.iceman.it/en/the-iceman/
Image of mummy from melting glacier:
Image taken by Paul Hanny 1991
Smithsonian Institution imaging of mummy: (Source: https://www.si.edu/stories/ancient-ink-iceman-otzi-has-worlds-oldest-tattoos)
Artistic recreation of Ötzi when he was alive: (Source: https://www.pri.org/stories/2017-04-06/researchers-may-have-cracked-case-how-tzi-iceman-died)
I hope you enjoyed this guide!
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