Notes from Underground - by David Rose

Tuckahoe and Fungus Stone

This column originally appeared in the Spring 2000 issue of Spores Illustrated, the newsletter of the Connecticut-Westchester Mycological Association (COMA).

            Throughout the Middle Ages, an idea prevailed that the so-called “mineral kingdom” – in contrast to the animal and vegetable – was a substantial reality; very often it had an alchemical meaning. To pre-modern thinkers the mineral kingdom was properly a part of creation visibly set apart from animate life, and it consisted of inanimate substances of uniform composition. Of course, it may easily be proven that all inanimate things are not necessarily mineral. Water (a liquid) and air (gases) are the most evident examples of the inanimate which fail to qualify as mineral. Later, in the 19th century, naturalists studied the animate (biology) and the inanimate (geology) together in examining the fossil record. With the advance of modern science the notion of a “mineral kingdom” as such has quietly eroded into a quaint relic of the past.

Now – once again – consider the mushroom. Throughout European history fungus has often been a subject of an assortment of strange beliefs as people have been apt to attribute the sudden appearance of mushrooms to magical or unknowable causes. Diverse phenomena from moldy fruit to fairy rings have led pre-modern cultures to seemingly superstitious notions about the origin and habits of fungi. But what to us seems superstitious really demonstrates the hold the fungal world assumes in the human imagination. This is why I like to consider mushrooms “symbols of transformation.” As such, fungi have even appeared to transform mineral into vegetal. There are two species that are historically notable in this regard.

The species Wolfiporia cocos and Polyporus tuberaster have often been discussed together precisely because each has an association with stone. First, let’s consider Wolfiporia. The sclerotium (a hardened mass of underground mycelium) of this fungus has been known for several hundred years as “tuckahoe” or “Indian bread.” The word “tuckahoe” – rendered variously as tockawhoughe, tawkee, or tuckah – has its origin in an Algonquin language and means “it is round.” White settlers of the British colonies called this sizable sclerotium “Indian bread” because some native Americans dug it up and roasted it or ground it into meal. Until the 20th century, the botanical identity of the tuckahoe and its use by native American cultures has been subject to some uncertainty and misinterpretation. The confusion stems from the fact that “tuckahoe” has also referred to a host of tuberous plants, like the Virginia Wake Robin (Arum virginicum) and Golden Club (Orontium aquaticum) which have also served as foodstuffs.

In the final analysis “tuckahoe “ is an Anglicized word of native American origin that refers to the sclerotium of the fungus Wolfiporia cocos, which appears as an oblong underground mass with a hard, scaly brown covering. It grows up to the size of a bowling ball, resembles a coconut, smells faintly of mushroom, and is edible when cooked. The quest to identify and name this stony growth has only complicated its history. An early botanist (Clayton) assigned it to the genus Lycoperdon, but 20th century mycologists have commonly used Elias Fries’ name, Pachyma cocos. Lewis von Schweinitz renamed it Sclerotium cocos, retaining Fries’ species epithet but ascribing greater importance to its form, hence “Sclerotium” as a genus.

Frederick Wolf experimentally produced its fruiting stage – a resupinate polypore – and placed it in the genus Poria. This was later revised to Wolfiporia in his honor. The underground associations of the tuckahoe have proliferated, for it was also eaten by African-Americans fleeing slavery prior to the Civil War. As a marginal food of people struggling to survive it commonly lent itself to marginal place-names. Frederick Douglass’ famous narrative begins, “I was born in Tuckahoe . . . in Talbot County, Maryland.” A related species, Mylitta australis, was eaten by the aboriginal people of Australia. It was known as “blackfellow’s bread,” a term, while sounding derogatory, again connoted the harsh reality of subsistence, here in a desert environment.

Polyporus tuberaster has often been confused with the tuckahoe, mainly due to their mutual associations with the mineral world. P. tuberaster itself is known as the “stone fungus.” An excellent photograph of this mushroom appears in David Arora’s Mushrooms Demystified (color plate 151; pages 563-4). Unlike the tuckahoe, whose fruiting body is relatively uninteresting in comparison with its edible sclerotium, P. tuberaster is robust polypore whose “host rock” can actually be planted in a pot and watered, with full expectation of harvesting a mature mushroom several days later. In Italy it has been known as “pietra fungaia.”

There is a classic account of this fungus written in 1758 by Sir John Hill, an English botanist, physician, and playwright entitled “An Account of a Stone in the Possession of the Right Honorable the Earl of Stafford; which on being watered Produces Excellent Mushrooms.” Hill’s essay is a blend of careful observation and respectful homage to the Countess and Earl of Stafford who afforded Hill the opportunity to examine this curiosity which came into their possession. The essay records Hill’s reactions to this unusual fungus and in doing so shows the general level of knowledge about the world of fungi in the mid-18th century.

Hill himself was a controversial figure. His interests and writings were extremely broad in scope – they encompassed novels, plays, botanical and other scientific writings, and even a scandalous gossip column in a London newspaper. He was acquainted with many famous literary figures of the time, including Henry Fielding, Samuel Johnson, and the actor David Garrick. Hill inevitably generated controversy in his literary and scientific pronouncements, inviting scorn and creating enemies. Fielding once referred to him as a “paltry little dunghill,” and Sam Johnson, in answer to a query by King George III, claimed that Hill was an ingenious man, but with little veracity. Nonetheless, Hill was a prolific writer who later in his life was superintendent of the Royal Gardens at Kew and was knighted by the King of Sweden.

In his account Hill stated that “the Lapis Fungifer is a stone composed of crystalline and talky [i.e., like talc] particles, and penetrated every way by the roots of a peculiar mushroom, which are permanent and full of vegetable life. … The rock-mushroom is a peculiar kind; and it is constantly this species and no other. … It is not covered with gills on the under part, but pierced with innumerable little holes of a somewhat angulated form. … The upper part is of a mixed yellow and olive colour; and the surface is broke in a wild, but beautiful manner, into a resemblance of scales and feathers. … The rock yields its mushrooms at any time, because it is watered at pleasure.” Hill was either unfamiliar with, or cared not to follow the binomial nomenclature of Linneaus, for he gave the mushroom the unwieldy polynomial, Boletus stipitatus radice perenni, pileo depresso scabro, poris subangulatis.

There are, of course, other instances in nature in which fungi grow on hard substrate like stone or mineral. Lichens are an obvious example, and microscopic fungi like Penicillium inhabit cracks in chipped dishes and crockery, making them potentially hazardous to health. In recent years other associations with the mineral world have sharpened our understanding of the evolutionary pathways of fungi. Prehistoric basidiomycetes preserved in amber have been found in the Dominican Republic and in New Jersey. The former, Coprinites dominicana, is estimated to be 15 to 30 million years old, while the latter, placed in the genus Archeomarasmius, dates from the mid-Cretaceous at around 90 million years old. That the remains of fleshy fungi have endured so long is yet another form of evidence of the lasting associations of the fungal and mineral worlds.

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