A fungus, the Ice Man and rotten wood that smells of green apples

There’s a common fungus growing on a birch tree in the woods. It’s called the Birch Bracket fungus.

Birch Bracket Fungus - The Hall of Einar - photograph (c) David Bailey (not the)

My friend Joe drinks tea made from it. I’m told it tastes very bitter but then it must be good for you, mustn’t it?

I remember it from my childhood, and learning that it was used to strop razors, in the days when barbers used cutthroat razor blades and needed to keep the finest edge on them. I also remember that small slices of it were used just like cork to mount dead insects on in entomology collections. It also makes the rotting wood smell distinctly of green apples. I expect you all to go out sniffing fungus infected trees now, just to check.

What I didn’t know was that Ötzi the Iceman, a 5,000 year old frozen mummy found in the Italian Alps was carrying some Birch Bracket fungus on leather strings when he died. I didn’t know that because his body was only found in 1991. It wasn’t the only fungus he was carrying, either. Ötzi was also carrying a fungus used as a firelighter, together with a complex firelighting kit with flint and pyrite to create sparks and over a dozen different plants. Why did he have Birch Bracket fungus though?

Birch Bracket fungus has some complex chemistry. One of its constituents is poisonous to parasitic worms and yet harmless to the host. It’s highly likely that Ötzi was carrying his fungal medicine with him to deworm himself.

I must ask my friend Joe about it. Over a cup of fungus tea, obviously.

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