Found throughout Southeast Alaska, bear bread or conk, is a familiar sight on tree stumps, dead trees, downed trees, even firewood. They are a the spore producing fruiting portion of the fungus, its main body called the mycelium are stringy filaments that burrow into the tree contributing primarily to its decay by absorbing nutrients, breaking down the structure, etc. Some conks though are thought to protect the tree against other fungus.
The primary ones that I have found on Prince of Wales Island are the tinder conk, artist conk, and turkey tail. There are others that reside on birch, aspen, or cottonwood that I have not seen yet…perhaps because most of my time has been spend in old growth, muskeggy areas of the island.
I was told they are called ‘bear bread’ because they are eaten by bears. It would take a bear to eat one as they are tough, fibrous, and not appetizing.
When very young, they look like white luminescent cap mushrooms with filaments growing into the wood. The hard shell appears to grow from or around the cap, initially tiny than growing with time.
One of the most interesting conks I have found was a turkey tail cluster in a patch of dense second growth on our property.
The person who homesteaded our lot had cut down some old growth by the lake. The area was muskeg damp with no light filtering through the dense second growth. The turkey tail was a florescent black. In other years, have found patches of florescent orange-red in the same patch. I do not know if the patches were sub-species or due to the absence of natural light. However, we have not seen them since we thinned the dense second growth and the area is profuse with natural light and air movement.
Below are pictures of turkey tail conk au natural. They are beautiful and fascinating.
Out on a cross-country hike, the pups and I found what must be an artist conk featuring a wolfish or human features? The conk was high up the dead tree. Actually artist conk’s name is derived primarily from the use of their bottom as a canvas for artist.
Conk grows in colonies. There is rarely just one. The individual conks in a colony illustrate the different stages of conk growth. There are tiny nubbins the size of a penny to fully mature sized conks.
It appears to me that some of the individuals merge to make an aggregated mega-conk.
The set of photos below show the immature stage of the conk on the verge of forming its hard outer shell. At this stage its texture resembles that of yam noodles in sukiyaki. Or a water-saturated earthworm.
The remaining photos show the different stages and sizes of conk in a colony. The final photo shows a colony merging.
The oldest conk that I can recall is the one in the slideshow below with our Shiloh Elias peering around the trunk at me. We first saw that particular conk in 2007. When we checked it recently, there were two three inch cedar seedlings growing out of it in what could be considered a circular life-cycle. Unfortunately I dispatched those seedlings.
Slideshow of some bear bread we have found.
Just as an aside, it is tough photographing anything with our canine pack with me…long noses and hard heads push their way in front of the camera, or mega-paws squash something being photographed as curious pups crowd around to “help”. The command “Sit-stay” accompanied with treats work wonders.
http://plants.alaska.gov/pdf/Conks.pdf, one of many articles on the net about conk.