Ghost fungi (Omphalotus nidiformis) during the day. Image Credit: Wikicommons

The Aboriginal use of fungi

  • BY Angela Heathcote |
  • August 11, 2017

Despite that there are few remaining records on how Indigenous people used fungi, we know that they lived by the rule of fungal lore.

WHILE THERE IS limited information on how exactly Indigenous people used Australia’s native fungi, evidence we do have suggests that they lived by what is known as ‘fungal lore’, which varied from region to region and was passed on through oral traditions.

According to Brett Summerell, the Director of Science and Conservation at the Royal Botanical Gardens Sydney, a lot of trial and error was involved as well.

“Oral tradition was strengthened by on-the-ground experience like observing, picking, sampling and tasting. The key thing was to pass on the information regarding when fungi appeared and where – as most are seasonal – and which were the good ones and which are the ones to avoid,” he explained.

Records suggest that Indigenous people were particularly cautious around Omphalotus nidiformis, commonly known as ‘ghost fungi’, which in low-light conditions exhibits a bright green glow. “Ghost fungus was avoided because it had bad spirits associated with it. This fungus is known to be toxic,” Brett said.

Records detailing the use of fungus for reasons beyond diet also exist.

“Indigenous people used Phellinus (bracket fungi) fruiting bodies medicinally. The smoke from burning brackets (fruiting bodies) has been reported to be inhaled by those with sore throats. Scrapings from slightly charred fruiting bodies were drunk with water to treat coughing, sore throats, bad chests, fevers and diarrhoea.”

Some fungus was even used to hide signs of aging.

Podaxis pistillaris also known as 'stalked puffball'a powdery-spored desert funguswas used by many desert tribes to darken the white hair in old men's whiskers and for body painting. There are reports of it also being used as a fly repellent.”

As for the consumption of fungi, Brett explained that Indigenous people ate a lot of Cytarria gunnii, Laccocephalum mylittae, often referred to as native bread and Mycoclelandia bulundari, which is type a of truffle.

As for whether European settlers adopted any of the rules outlined by fungal lore, Brett explained that there are very little records of this.

"It is difficult to know why this is given the tradition in Europe of eating fungi," he said. "

It may have been because fungi were mostly consumed by women when gathering food and so may not have been observed by European men who inevitably were the first explorers."