We don’t know for certain that the story of the king letting the peasant woman’s cakes burn is true, but he was a really interesting character, and the comparison with the roundish, black fruiting bodies of this fungus is apt. In bushcraft we use King Alfred’s Cakes as tinder – they catch a spark easily and will burn gently for a long time – a practice in use since Stone Age times, when we think they will have used the fungus to transport fire from one place to another. This all explains other names such as Coal Fungus and Carbon Balls, though Cramp Balls reflects the old belief that carrying them would cure attacks of cramp. They feed on dead and decaying wood, particularly Ash, Beech and Birch, and will grow on burnt wood, helping the landscape to recover after a wildfire. The matt, pinkish brown ones in River’s second photo are young ones.
Photos by River Six