Glowing wood and foxfire

I recently had an enquiry from someone who noticed during the middle of the night that their pile of split firewood was emitting a faint glow. What could cause this?!

Apparently there are fungi that grow in rotting wood that can emit light through luminescence. The phenomenon is sometimes called “foxfire”. I’ve never noticed this myself, but a colleague who is a mycologist (expert on fungi) assures me it does occur in New Zealand. Apparently the light is very faint, and your eyes have to be well-adjusted to the dark.

If anyone has seen foxfire themselves, I’m interested to know more, particularly within a New Zealand setting; for instance, what kind of conditions and what kinds of wood are particularly conducive?

8 Responses

  1. Suzanne Nottage

    We saw some glowing wood while glow worm spotting near Fox Glacier township (New Zealand) last night. It was dead native wood on the ground and even after we rubbed it with our feet it still glowed. We were in a damp, still, cool area of forest.

  2. Leon Perrie

    John Scobie sent me an extract from a book by Mervyn Addenbrooke, which was about his “ninety years of farm-working and hunting in the North Island hills”.

    On page 80, Mervyn recounts splitting posts and battens when they came across a fallen, rotting totara in “dense heavy second-growth in a very shady damp gully that never saw the sun”.

    “When we had finished splitting, it was getting late and rather dark and the posts, battens and chips were all aglow with phosphorus and we didn’t need a light. I have seen phosphorus glowing here and there in some bush sometimes, but nothing like this before. The whole ground all around where we worked was just a mass of glow…”

    That would have been some sight – amazing!

  3. Leon Perrie

    Perhaps the way to ‘cultivate’ it is to get a pile of decaying wood together (e.g., a pile of firewood) and see what happens. Kevin above suggests it should be near a heat source, but perhaps try with and without.

  4. Joseph

    is there any way to cultivate it?

  5. James

    The glow is caused by Luciferase (an oxidizing agent) reacting with Luciferin. Nobody knows why this happens, but one theory is that it is a form of aposematism to scare away predators (yes, plants do this too), similar to the Skunk using a pungent odour. Another theory is that this coud be used to attract animals/insects to aid in the spreading of the spores.

  6. kevin

    From my reading bioluminescence occurs mainly from fungi. The accounts I have read have been firewood near a fire. This seems to indicate that an energy source is required. Given that most luminious objects glow because they take on an energy source the electrons become excited and give off their luminescense and slowly decay. This would seem to fit with it happening near a fire.
    Decaying wood seems to be a requirement. Also some species of fungi appear to require the presence of water.
    Once the fungi dies no bioluminescence can occur

  7. Gardening Services Auckland

    I have never heard of foxfire, wow. What does it feed off ? I am assuming garden waste.


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