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The Mushroom With a Thousand Faces
The Mushroom With a Thousand Faces
“FRESH CUTS OF FOMES FOMENTARIUS WERE USED AS PLASTERS AND EVEN BANDAGES AMONGST THE WOODSMEN AND WOOD-CUTTERS IN TRANSYLVANIA”
A natural plaster, precious folk medicine for both humans and livestock, a vegan and renewable alternative to your leather, and a good tinder if you ever need to light a fire. What could this versatile and precious material be? What if I told you that it is one of the biggest perennial polypores, and that you can find it on almost any kind of hardwood in Europe. It’s common and ancient, and was found amongst the possessions of Ötzi, the Iceman. Still no idea? Take a look at the pictures. I am sure you can easily recognise this as hoof fungus – Fomes fomentarius.
How can this mushroom be used in so many ways? How long have people been taking advantage of its diverse qualities? What sources do we have? Fomes fomentarius can be found in the first traditional Hungarian Pharmacopoeia (Ars Medica by György Lencsés, late 16th century), and in several Polish Pharmacopoeias from the early 19th century, incl. the 1st Polish Pharmacopoeia (Pharmacopoeia Regni Poloniae, 1817), the Military Pharmacopoeia (Pharmacopoeia Castrensis Polonica, 1831) and the Pharmacopoeia for Hospitals (Pharmacopoeia Nosocomialis, 2nd Ed., 1860).
The leather-like material which was made of the inner material of the fruit body of hoof fungus, called amadou, was a crucial part of physicians, dentists and midwives’ work before the era of modern medical supplies like gauze bandages and swabs. Pieces of amadou were used to remove the sweat and blood of the patients, staunch wounds, and absorb other fluids.
From the ethnomycological publications of Dr. Győző Zsigmond, a well-known ethnomycologist and Professor of the University of Bucharest, we also know that fresh cuts of Fomes fomentarius were used as plasters and even bandages amongst the woodsmen and wood-cutters in Transylvania because of its astringent and hemostyptic (blood staunching) effect. In Transylvanian folk medicine it was used against headache, sweating and stroke. This treatment was applied in a really unique way; an amadou hat would be prescribed to be worn on the head of the patient. People also often used their amadou hat as a preventative against being hit by lightning. The decoction of hoof fungus was used against tummy ache and many other disorders of the digestive tract.
“IN TRANSYLVANIAN FOLK MEDICINE IT WAS USED AGAINST HEADACHE, SWEATING AND STROKE. THIS TREATMENT WAS APPLIED IN A REALLY UNIQUE WAY; AN AMADOU HAT WOULD BE PRESCRIBED TO BE WORN ON THE HEAD OF THE PATIENT”
According to modern pharmacological research we now know that hoof fungus has active components with documented antibiotic, antiviral, anti-inflammatory, immuno-modulant and anti-proliferative effects, explaining why (at least some) of its folk uses developed.
Fomes fomentarius wasn’t only used as a remedy against human diseases and acts of God, it was an important fumigating agent too. Villagers in Serbia burned it to keep insects such as gnats away and beekeepers still burn different perennial polypore species to calm the honeybees or keep them away while they collect the honey from the hives. Dry slices of hoof fungus were also extensively used as tinder (for fire making) around Europe from almost as far back as we have archeological records until the late 19th century.
As a ‘leather’ or clothing material it has been used for hundreds of years. The first written record about an amadou hat that I am familiar with is a report from 1754, written to Baron Lőrintz Radak about a saddle, and all the other tack and equestrian gear that was made with it. The amadou masters also made other clothes such as waistcoats as well as decorations and toys such as balls (a bit smaller than a baseball) and mice. These amadou mice are still very popular in Transylvania, although their original role has disappeared.
The importance of amadou making in Transylvania can be clearly seen from the fact that there is a permanent exhibition in The Szekler National Museum, Sfântu Gheorghe which introduces the tools and main steps of amadou making, complete with beautiful amadou goods (many from private collections). There is also a smaller, travelling exhibition which has been displayed in many museums worldwide.
What do we know about amadou making? Is it still a living tradition in Transylvania? According to Dr. Győző Zsigmond this craft, which once earned a living for many people, started to be practised in Transylvania in 1870 in the village of Corund and amadou making continues to be practised in this area although the number of amadou masters (called: toplász mester) is decreasing due to the increased employment opportunities now available to young people from the region.
Like any, craft amadou making always starts with the selection of the best raw materials. The selected fruiting body can’t be too old, inhabited by insects or parasitised by other fungal species (incl. moulds). Nor can they be too dry. Once the amadou master, or sometimes his best apprentice, has carefully selected and harvested the raw material from the host tree the master uses a specially designed knife or sickle to remove the hard skin from the fruiting body to be able to reach its soft, velour-like inner flesh. To make an amadou hat the still moist fruiting body is placed on a tree trunk section whose top has been rounded like a wooden hat form and beaten with a wooden bat or hammer until the flesh is moulded to the same shape. Some masters might place the fruiting body into an alkaline bath (a weak potassium nitrate solution) to make it even softer before starting to form the hat.
Cardboard is then glued to the inner surface of the hat to help it keep its shape, the shield/brim made from a separate piece of amadou and the two parts fixed together. The hat is technically ready at this stage but it is usually decorated with naturally dyed leaf or flower patterns. These decorative elements are mostly made from birch polypore, Fomitopsis betulina, rather than hoof fungus.
Today, as well as making hats and other decorative pieces, amadou is used to dry fishing flies and there are several online stores on sites like Etsy selling slices for craft purposes. In addition some fashion designers are interested in it for its leather-like qualities. New brand EDEN Power Corp has commissioned makers in Corund to create a contemporary silhouette from a single boiled conk. A dried substrate myceliated with Fomes fomentarius is also being used by furniture designers working with mycelium to grow things like lamps. The hoof fungus is still showing us new faces all the time.
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