Gateway to the Classics: Display Item
Anna B. Comstock

The Bracket Fungi

Teacher's Story

There are some naturalists who think that one kind of life is as good as another and therefore call all things good. Perhaps this is the only true attitude for the nature lover. To such the bracketlike fungi which appear upon the sides of our forest and shade trees are simply an additional beauty, a bountiful ornamentation. But some of us have become special pleaders in our attitude toward life, and those of us who have come to feel the grandeur of tree life can but look with sorrow upon these fungus outgrowths, for they mean that the doom of the tree is sealed.


A bracket fungus.

Photo by Verne Morton.

There are many species of bracket fungi. Three of these are very common. The gray bracket, gray above and with creamy surface below (Polyporous applanatus)  is a favorite for amateur etchers, who with a sharp point make interesting sketches upon this naturally prepared plate; this species often grows to great size and is frequently very old. Another species (P. lucidus)  is in color a beautiful mahogany, or coral-red above and has a peculiar stem from which it depends; the stem and upper surface are polished as if burnished and the lower surface is yellowish white. Another species (P. sulphurens)  is sulphur yellow above and below; usually many of these yellow brackets are grouped together, their fan-shaped caps overlapping. Many of the shelf fungi live only on dead wood, and those are an aid in reducing dead branches and stumps until they crumble and become again a part of the soil. However, several of the species attack living trees and do great damage. They can gain access to the living tree only through an injured place in the bark, a break caused perhaps by the wind, by a bruise from a falling tree, or more often from the hack of the careless wood-chopper; often they gain entrance through an unhealed knot-hole. To one who understands trees and loves them, their patient striving to heal these wounds inflicted by forces they cannot withstand is truly pathetic. After the wound is made and before the healing is accomplished, the wind may sift into the wound the almost omnipresent spores of these fungi and the work of destruction begins. From the spores grows the mycelium, the fungus threads which push into the heart of the wood getting nourishment from it as they go. When we see wood thus diseased we say that it is rotting, but rotting merely means the yielding up of the body substance of the tree to these voracious fungus threads. They push in radially and then grow upward and downward, weakening the tree where it most needs strength to withstand the onslaught of the wind. Later these parasitic threads may reach the cambium layer, the living ring of the tree trunk, and kill the tree entirely; but many a tree has lived long with the fungus attacking its heartwood. A bracket fungus found by Professor Atkinson was eighty years old; however, this may have shortened the life of the tree a century or more.

After these fungus threads are thoroughly established in the tree, they again seek a wound in the protecting bark where they may push out and build the fruiting organ, which we call the bracket. This may be at the same place where the fatal entry was made, or it may be far from it. The bracket is at first very small and is composed of a layer of honeycomb cells, closed and hard above and opening below—cells so small that we can see the cell openings only with a lens. These cells are not hexagonal like the honeycomb, but are tubes packed together. Spores are developed in each tube. Next year another layer of cells grows beneath this first bracket and extends out beyond it; each year it is thus added to, making it thicker and marking its upper surface with concentric rings around the point of attachment. The creamy surface of the great bracket fungus on which etchings are made, is composed of a layer of these minute spore-bearing tubes. Not all bracket fungi show their age by these annual growths, for some species form new shelves every year, which decay after the spores are ripened and shed.

When once the mycelium of such fungus becomes established, the tree is doomed and its lumber made worthless even though, as sometimes happens, the tree heals its wounds so that the fungus is imprisoned and can never send out fruiting brackets. Thus it is most important to teach the pupils how to protect trees from the attacks of these enemies, which are devastating our forests and which sometimes attack our orchards and shade trees.

As soon as a tree is bruised, the wound should be painted or covered with a coat of tar. If the wind breaks a branch, the splinters left hanging should be sawed off, leaving a smooth stump, and this be painted. While ordinary paint if renewed each year will suffice, experiment has shown that the coat of tar is better and should be used.

Especially should teachers impress on pupils the harm done by careless hacking with axe or hatchet. We shall do an invaluable service in the protection of our forests, if we teach the rising generation the respectful treatment of trees—which is due living organisms whose span of life may cover centuries.


Bracket Fungi

Leading thought—The fungi which we see growing shelflike from trees, are deadly enemies to the trees. Their spores germinate and penetrate at some open wound and the growing fungus weakens the wood.

Method—It is desirable that a tree on which shelf fungus grows should be studied by the class, for this is a lesson on the care of trees. After this lesson the fungus itself may be studied at leisure in the schoolroom.


1. On what kind of a tree is the bracket fungus growing? Is it alive or dead? If living, does it look vigorous or is it decaying?

2. Is the fungus bracket growing against the side of the tree, or does it stand out on a stem?

3. Look at the place where the bracket joined the tree. Does it seem to be a part of the wood?

4. What color is the fungus on its upper surface? How large is it? How thick near the tree? How thick at the edge? Can you detect concentric layers or rings? If it is the large species used for etching, cut down through it with a knife or hatchet and count the layers; this should show its age.

5. Look at the lower surface. How does it appear to the naked eye? If you scratch it with a pin or knife does the bruise show? Examine the surface with a lens and describe what you see. Cut or break the fungus and note that each of these holes is an opening to a little tube. In each of these tubes spores are borne.

6. Have you ever seen toadstools that, instead of having the leaflike gills, have beneath the cap a porous surface like a little honeycomb or like the under side of the shelf fungi?

7. How many kinds of shelf fungi can you find? Which of them is on living trees, and which on stumps or dead wood?

8. If the fungus is on a living tree, then the tree is ruined, for the fungus threads have worked through it and weakened it so that it will break easily and is of no use as lumber. There must have been an open wound in the tree where the fungus entered; see whether you can find this wound. There must also have been a wound where the shelf grew out; see whether you can detect it. If the tree should heal all its wounds after the fungus entered, what would become of the fungus?

9. What does the shelf fungus feed on? What part of it corresponds to the roots and leaves of other plants? What part may be compared to the flowering and fruiting parts of plants?

10. What treatment must we give trees to keep them free from this enemy?


The edible Boletus (B. edulis).   This has tubes below the cap instead of gills. The spores are developed within the tubes, as in the bracket fungi.

Photo by G. F. Atkinson.