Fungus is Good when it creates Spalted Wood

“Fungus among-us,” vaguely remembered from childhood, turned into my dad’s pride and joy on clearing a grove of old trees and finding “spalted” wood. Mother Nature, aka “invasive fungus,” squiggled a thin line of black ink, like rivers on an old map, through the branches of an occasional dying maple or elm. (Come to think of it, Dad has never had a single oak tree. I wonder why.)

Let us pause for a moment to consider the song “There Was A Fungus Among Us,” first was done by the song’s writer, Terry Noland, in 1958.  A cover of it was released in 1961 by Hugh Barrett and the Victors.  This version was popularized by the legendary Dick Biondi aka “The Wild Italian.” If you click on these links to listen, I pray you will not be infested you with earworms.

Back to fungus among trees. In the Amana Colonies, I was surprised to see furniture made of this rare wood. I took the photos below, and they’re standing upright in my computer, but I’ll be darned if I can get rotated here:

IMG_0864   IMG_0865

IMG_0863   IMG_0866

Never mind. Since you’re dying to know (as I was) how this wood naturally occurs in nature, I’ll spare you the trouble of googling it yourself. From  Hobbit House:

Spalting can occur in wood due to invasion of the wood fibers by fungal spores, which then form colonies and continue to grow in the wood. Since spalting is a form of rot, the discoloration is usually accompanied by a degradation in the strength of the wood fibers and the wood can become quite punky and eventually just rot out entirely.

Alan Lacer wrote in American Woodworker December 1999, issue #77 :

When wood is captured somewhere between the extremes of being completely sound and fully rotten, it can display magnificent beauty. The discoloration, prominent black lines and changes in texture that occur during the decaying process, are known to woodworkers as spalting.

spalted-wood_5F00_maple.jpg (800×443)

Spalting is a by-product of the rotting process that is carried out by a vast army of stain, mold and decay fungi. They are abundantly present in the air and soil, waiting for favorable conditions and a suitable host. Generally, wood moisture content of at least 25 percent, temperatures from about 40- to 90-degrees F, air and food (especially abundant in sap wood) are what the fungi need. A tree or branch freshly fallen onto a damp forest floor in warm weather is asking for it.

Lighter colored woods offer the best canvas for nature’s graphic work. Hard maple is viewed as the king of spalted woods, although sycamore, persimmon, red and white oak, elm, pecan, birch, buckeye, apple, magnolia, beech, holly, hackberry, box elder and the sapwoods of walnut and cocobolo are favored by woodworkers as well.

An active fungus colony surrounds itself with a chemical and physical barrier that defines its outer boundaries. Filaments of the fungus pack and swell in these regions and exude generous amounts of pigmented material that usually appear as black lines. The material in these “zone lines” protects the colony from attack by bacteria, insects, and other fungi, and assists in maintaining a desirably moist atmosphere.Inset: Electron microscope view of a fungus zone line in front of wood cell structures.

Hunting spalted wood is like panning for gold–lots of searching for that one precious nugget. Logs rotting on the forest floor, dead limbs and entire dead standing trees are excellent sources. You can also hunt for hidden treasure at a community bone yard of removed trees, and don’t overlook the bottom of your old firewood pile.

Now, to see if I can find anything made of spalted wood (in my price range, that is) at the Amana Colonies. Oktoberfest is here. Ein Prosit!

About carolkean

novelist, reviewer, editor, book critic for Liberty Island and Perihelion Science Fiction; native prairie/guerilla gardener; champion of liberty, indie authors & underdogs; one of the top two reviewers in Editors &Preditors Poll 2015; Amazon Vine, NetGalley Top Reviewer
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5 Responses to Fungus is Good when it creates Spalted Wood

  1. That’s a fascinating article! I had never heard of spalted wood, but I’m interested in fungi as a byproduct of being interested in termites, who grow fungus for food or who like wood rotted by fungi. If it wasn’t for fungus, termites, and other wood-eating “pests” like beetle grubs, the Earth would be buried under a thick layer of dead cellulose!


  2. fontofworlds says:

    Fascinating! This reminds me of a story- One rainy nasty day, Grandma and I heard some odd noises coming from the river. Sound travels well on water, even in the pouring rain. As we got down by the landing, we saw folks floundering across the way and up stream a ways. They were caught in the rain, and their canoe had slammed into a tree and they were struggling. The canoe was caught dangerously under a tree leaning across the water, and was threatening to be pulled under by the current. It bobbed on the deep murky water, and the two elderly people were clinging to the tree for dear life!

    Quickly, grandma and I loaded ourselves into our biggest canoe (as neighbors do) and paddled over. Fortunately, they were able to hold on! We fished them out, and even rescued a few of their packages. Unfortunately, the canoe was a total loss. As we got the last package we could reach, it bobbed its last, and slipped under the black water to it’s final rest. Terrifying how suddenly and quickly it went.

    So, we decided to make the best of their being stranded. We then invited them inside for coffee and cocoa and stories. They were such nice people! they traveled all over the country as sales people, going to art fairs and trade shows selling beautiful mennonite products– items that were both beautiful and functional. They used our phone, and about half an hour later, a horse and buggy picked them up. Apparently, they were also friends with a local mennonite population, had lived in their neighborhood for years. What they did was sell woodworking, especially little containers made of “birdseye maple”. The mennonite people had brought us two of these boxes as a thank you for rescuing their friends!

    That looks exactly like birdseye maple. These boxes are made of thin strips precisely fitted together and the whole works are held together with two to four tiny copper nails. The results are truly breath taking. I had wondered what the process was called, to see if one could buy it. Now I know why it’s so expensive! Thanks!


  3. carolkean says:

    Margot, thanks for sharing that story! Birdseye maple? “Tiger Oak” may have been named by the same person. 🙂 Oh, don’t get me blogging about quarter-sawn wood, now. Have you blogged (or written a short story or scene in a novel) about this canoe incident and the people you met as a result? Great flash fiction piece, maybe, to submit to an anthology?


  4. carolkean says:

    Hunting now through your blog, even though I have a million more urgent matters demanding my atttention….


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