“It is no use walking anywhere to preach unless our walking is our preaching”. St. Francis
I’m rounding off my Elfin Ladder trilogy of blogs, which has turned out to be an argument that unless we safeguard and use our Wildlands we’ll never get rid of our Wastelands.
Curiously, since beginning to write about elfin ladders I’ve been inundated with them. The rung of the elfin ladder in the picture above is a magnificent specimen. Counting the rings on it, it is probably about 20 years old.
Researching symbolic meanings for the word ladder turned up a variety of interpretations. Generally, a ladder represents a bridge and usually between heaven and earth. That’s one of the meanings attributed to the biblical story of Jacob’s Ladder. I’ve discussed that in Elfin Ladder II.
Jacob’s Ladder is also a plant with a very pretty blue flower. It’s found in woodlands, meadows and other places. It’s also known as Greek Valerian. Valerian root is widely available as a herbal sleeping aid. Has its popular name arisen from its sleep- and possibly hallucination- inducing properties? Approve or disapprove, such substances, for instance mescaline from the cactus peyote, have long been used as spiritual gateways. (I’m not condoning the use of hallucinogens, legal or illegal, just reporting on their existence).
I think it’s more likely that Jacob’s Ladder got its name from the shape of its leaves and the manner in which they ascend their stems. This combination resembles the rungs of a ladder. There are four basic ways in which leaves position themselves on a stem: opposite, alternate, whorled and rosulate. The leaves of Jacob’s Ladder form themselves on the stem in opposite fashion, i.e. there is one on each opposite side of a stem.
My fascination with my Elfin Ladder (left) was in part because of the regular shape of the rungs and the spacing between them.
What I’m calling rungs are known as tongues. They are also brackets or shelves. They are Shelf fungi, in particular, Fistula Hepatica – Beefsteak fungus, or Ox Tongue or Oak Tongue fungus. Young examples look like pink tongues. They have the look and shape of ox tongue or liver. When cut, they ‘bleed’ reddish liquid, like meat. These young fungi are edible. Other types of shelf fungi are the Sulphur Shelf (or Chicken Mushroom), the Birch Bracket, Dryad’s Saddle, Artist’s Conk and Turkey Tail. Great names!
The shelf, tongue or bracket is the visible fruiting body (carpaphore) of the fungus.
The fruiting body is also called a conk because it resembles horses’ hooves. The spores of the fungus dwell within the pores of its under-surface, awaiting its season and the winds to carry them on to other tree hosts.
A new ring (layer) of spore tissue is added to the conk every growing season, which enables the age of a fungus to be established. A single fungus, large-enough, is an entire microhabitat, providing co-habitation and food for spiders, mites and insects.
The mycelium – the actual body of the fungus, travels like fingers through the living cell layer into the heart of the tree, decomposing chemicals en route. The fungus feeds mainly on the cells of the tree’s heartwood, which are dead.
The living cells of a tree lie just under the bark. If a young tree becomes infected, it’s doomed. The mycelia will damage the living layer on their way to the smaller dead heart. Commonly, shelf fungus attacks at the base of a tree. This weakens the trunk and a then a high wind may bring it down. The mycelia grow out of the spores of the fungus’ fruiting body which have been carried on the wind to lodge in wounds in a tree’s trunk. These may lie dormant, however, until a young tree grows old.
Shelf fungus can prolong the life of an old tree. By the time a fungus is visible on an old tree, it has munched its way through a considerable amount of dead wood inside. As rotted wood pulp falls to the ground, it feeds the tree’s roots. In fact, the fungus enables the tree to use nutrients that are otherwise trapped in dead heartwood. Where the fungus hollows a hole in a trunk and in so doing provides nests for birds or animals, their droppings feed the tree, too. While shelf fungus may weaken younger trees, in the case of older ones, it decreases the rigid heartwood, rendering the tree more pliable and thus more likely to survive storms than younger trees.
There are other benefits from infections of shelf fungus. Brown rot results from fungi not being able to break down lignin in the cell walls. Lignin is a molecule, large and reddish brown in character. Its function is to make cells stronger and more waterproof.
White rots attack both lignin and cellulose. The rotted wood turns white because the fungi they tend to ignore the cellulose, leave it behind. Scientists are exploring the use of white rot fungi to convert into paper pulp. This reduces energy use and pollutants. White rot fungi can also destroy toxic chemicals like PCB’s (Polychlorinated Hydrocarbons) in soil. PCBs form a family of man-made organic chemicals which were manufactured from 1929 until they were banned in 1979. They had hundreds of commerial and domestic uses, including as paint plasticisers, in pigments, dyes and carbonless copy paper. Their toxicity varies as does the consistency of the product, from thin, light coloured liquids to yellow or black waxy solids.
The tannic acid that’s present in the fungus tends to stain the wood inside an infected tree trunk into a rich dark brown and this wood is prized by furniture makers. Artists use shelf fungi (for example, Ganoderma applanatum), to make etchings and beads.
Shelf fungi are also used as herbal medicines and since as far back as neolithic times at least. A bag on the body of Ötzi, the 5,300 year-old Ice Man mummy contained two pieces of Piptoporus betulinus (the fruiting body of the birch polypore fungus). These were threaded onto two strips of hide. The birch polypore has antibiotic and styptic qualities. effects. Also, Ötzi is known to have suffered from intestinal parasites. Toxic oils in bracket fungi are effective against these. The oils cause diarrhea. Perhaps the use of this fungus was as a purge.
Mature shelf fungi are very tough, thus are ground into powder and used to make teas in herbal medicine.
Another herbal shelf fungus is the Turkey Tail, Trametes versicolor. Research into this fungus for its medicinal value has led to its use in adjunct cancer therapy, including colorectal cancer and leukaemia. A product has been developed in Japan (Krestin) from research.
Turkey tails can be used for dyeing wool, some fabrics or paper and will yield a brown color with wool when ammonia is used as a mordant.
Beefsteak/Ox Tongue Fungus, Fistulina Hepatica is edible (as a young fruit) though is said to have a slightly sour taste. I’ve read that this can be overcome by soaking it in milk overnight. Recipes include cooking it in water with shallots, garlic and herbs such as thyme. I’d cook it in cider or white wine.
WARNING: I do not recommend the consumption of ANY fungus found in the wild unless the picker is an expert in fungus identification, or is accompanied by one.
I hope I’ve shown in my Elfin Ladder Trilogy how wild places offer up opportunities for personal growth on all levels: on the psycho-spiritual, in being attentive to the psychic signposts that sometimes arise; and on the physical, in paying attention to the ways in which nature can teach us about successful co-habitation, can provide us with FREE food, medicine, and non-toxic materials with which to pursue our creativity.
Besides, the complex intertwinings of the flora and fauna of our wild landscapes holds endless fascination. That’s enough reason for me to get out into nature. But co-habitation is something we really need to re-learn.
Let’s walk … if we don’t use our wild places, they will be made to disappear so we can’t.
If you don’t like walking alone and you live in the UK, you could join the Ramblers Association: http://www.ramblers.org.uk
Friendly Fungus Among Us