There have been many reports from the times of early European settlement, all from Tasmania, of the Aboriginal people eating a white’ punk’ growing on trees. It has been widely assumed that this is Laetiporus portentosus, formerly known as Piptoporus portentosus.
This June I chanced upon a specimen of this lying on the ground in Bridgetown. It was quite a massive thing, weighing several kilos and it was saturated with water. That is why I assume was on the ground, having fallen from its position because of its weight. Here it is sitting on my dining room table.
Here is another shot of it, this time showing the inside after I had cut it open with great difficulty. I don’t think this would have been possible with primitive tools.
You can see that the inside looks sort of cottony. In fact it more closely resembles polystyrene in texture. An attempt to eat a small piece of it revealed that it was about as edible as polystyrene too. Not even in an emergency could anyone possibly eat and digest this fungus. Perhaps the story is different with very small specimens but I am doubtful.
It is quite difficult to get a picture of one of these in-situ on a tree because they tend to grow quite high up. I was lucky enough to spot one by a road cutting near Donnybrook that enabled me to scramble up and take a picture with my phone. Here it is.
The fact that these are relatively few and far between and so high up on the trees is further evidence against them being used as food.
It is however widely reported that they were used as tinder and to carry fire. Some experiments revealed that a dried specimen could be ignited very readily and that it would smolder for a long time. By judicious control of the fire front on a smoldering specimen it could easily be kept aglow for hours. Uncontrolled burning of half a specimen lasted about 40 minutes. I made a short video of a small piece smoldering after it had been ignited. A still from that video is shown below.