Girls of New Caledonia decorate their hair with shining mushrooms, and shining rotten wood was used as a 'safe light' in grain stores where an open flame is likely to cause a fire. As early as the XVI century, the famous Swedish historian and collector of information about his times - archbishop
of Uppsala, Olaus Magnus noted that in Scandinavian countries the shining bark of
oak was used to mark tracks through thick forest. Of course, the actual bark itself
does not emit any light, but the fungus growing within the bark has
bioluminescent properties. This is a well known property of the honey
mushroom (Armillaria mellea), which is found all around the world.
On the islands of Indonesia, another species of fungus has been used, for as long as anyone can remember, as a type of
lantern that requires no fuel, to help people travel through the jungle at night. This was first written about by Eberhardt
Rumphius, know as the 'Pliny of India'. In the XVII century, he spent a lot of time on the island of Ambon and
became very familiar with the flora and inhabitants of many of the islands of Indonesia.
Some time later, during the First World War, British soldiers at the western
front, marked their helmets with shining fungus infested bark dust to be able to see each other
amongst the darkness of trenches. It was a 'safe light' as it did not cause the danger of
accidentally causing a fire in ammunition stores.
For biologists, on the other hand, 'shining fungi' are a fascinating phenomenon. The process
called bioluminescence is one of the few biological processes that scientists have yet to find a concrete reason for. It looks as though it is just a side
effect of the intensive metabolism of the fungus. The crucial role in
light emition is played by an enzyme beautifully called lucipherase. The name
is associated with light, but also with Lucipher, a synonym of Satan before its
fall! Insects and fishes, using the same enzyme system appear to be wiser than
fungi. They use the light flashes for complicated signalization, and to attract
potential prey in the darkness of sea depths.