There are four main groups, or phyla, of organisms classified as fungi represented in the northwest boreal forest. One phylum includes microscopic, parasitic organisms; the second group includes molds such as the ones found on bread; the third group includes sac fungi such as mildews, truffles, and cup fungi; while the fourth phylum, known as basidiomycota, the various species of which will be the main focus in this website, includes mushrooms, puffballs, and bracket or shelf fungi.
Fungi are parasitic organisms, infecting healthy trees like birch or trembling aspen, or forming on the trunks of dead or dying trees. Fungi could range in colour and form, though some of the ones often used had a corky texture that made them smoulder when burned. This quality of fungal organisms made them useful to northwest Aboriginal Peoples as a fire starter and a handy means of transporting fire from campsite to campsite. The introduction of matches to the Aboriginal communities of the boreal forest curbed the use of fungi in this way, but some present day traditional hunters and trappers will occasionally continue the tradition, as noted below along with other traditional uses in the following excerpt from Terry Garvin’s book, Carving Faces, Carving Lives: People of the Boreal Forest.
A certain fungus, a parasitic growth on trees which grows up to thirty centimetres (twelve inches) long, will smoulder for days after being lit. A piece of this fungus was used to carry fire to a new camp. At the destination, the slow-burning fungus was blown on to encourage a small flame, which was in turn used to light some tinder. The smoke from the smouldering fungus also served as an insect repellant, and is still occasionally used for this purpose today (George Sanderson, and many others, Fort McMurray, 1963).
Willow fungus is smaller than tree fungus. It grows on dry willow branches close to damp ground. This fungus is sometimes used as an air freshener because of its pleasant aroma, which one can detect when walking through a willow grove. A piece of this fungus can also be used as an applicator to treat exposed wounds. It is also used as a sponge which is saturated with hot water or hot oil and placed in the ear to relieve an earache.