By James Duncan
Learning and Engagement Officer
The kingdom of fungi has captivated humankind for centuries. In a realm with some truly strange names, King Alfred's Cakes (Daldinia concentrica) perhaps stands out as one of the most bizarre. The highly distinctive fruiting bodies of this fungus can be seen year round, attached firmly to the surface of dead wood, looking very much like lumps of charcoal. Their appearance in fact has traditionally given them the alternative name of 'coal fungus.' They continue to get darker as they get older and are a prime example of Saprotrophic nutrition, a method of digestion enabling the processing of decomposing organic matter. King Alfred's Cakes' display an overwhelming preference towards the dead and decaying wood of Ash (Fraxinus excelsior) though smaller forms may be found on Beech and Birch, particularly after heathland fires in the case of Birch. Of course, with the continuing decline of Ash across Britain owing to dieback, this fungus will certainly have an abundance of suitable habitat.
The Latin name of this fungus is indicative of the concentric black and silver growth rings that are evident inside the shell, or stroma.Much like the growth rings in a tree, each represents a season's growth and shows just how many years that King Alfred's Cakes may survive. The common name, however, relates to something a whole lot different. King Alfred, or 'Alfred the Great' lived in the ninth century. The story goes that Alfred was in hiding from the Viking hordes who were ravishing parts of Britain. On the run, he took refuge in the homestead of a peasant and agreed to keep an eye on the cakes she was baking. Alas, he took his eye from the fire and allowed them to burn. To escape the embarrassment of such an act he scattered them amongst the forest, hiding his mistake, and the rest is very much history. They certainly have the appearance of a cremated dough.
King Alfred's Cakes have also been long known as 'cramp balls' for their perceived assistance in preventing the onset of cramp. Perhaps more usefully they've long been used as tinder for starting fires as they burn particularly slowly, though with a truly noxious smoke. Their value to the environment is far more significant as they provide a useful home for a number of invertebrates, food for the larvae of the moth Harpella forficella, but perhaps most importantly of all accelerate the decomposition that helps return vital nutrients to the soil.
King Alfred's Cakes © Graeme Lyons