Oct 08 2011

Glow in the Dark

Published by at 8:47 am under Plants

October is a good time of year to see wood glow in the dark.

The phenomenon is called foxfire and is most often caused by the honey mushroom (Armillaria mellea), native to eastern North America.

Armillaria mellea feeds primarily on hardwood and is most often noticed when it produces fruit –> honey mushrooms.  The mushrooms are like the apples on a tree.  There’s a big plant structure that produces the fruit, but in the case of Armillaria you can’t see the “plant” until it glows.

The glowing comes from its rhizomorphs that look like long, black bootlaces and grow under the bark of dead trees, downed logs, old roots and stumps.  They also grow on living trees which they eventually kill.

The faster they grow, the more they glow because their feeding process produces light.  Their bioluminescence is a chemical reaction that’s the opposite of photosynthesis.  The tree they’re consuming used CO2 + light to produce organic (carbon-based) material + oxygen.  The fungi use luciferin molecules to combine organic material + oxygen to produce CO2 + light.  Pretty ingenious, eh?

Finding foxfire is problematic, especially for city folks like me.  The light produced is a faint green or blue glow that’s easily swamped by man-made light.

The habitat and weather must cooperate too.  The infected wood has to be damp — not too wet, never dry — and the best temperature is 77oF though anything above freezing is acceptable.  Summer heat (86oF+) shuts down bioluminescence which makes autumn, with its early sunsets and cooler temperatures, an optimal time to see it.

I’ve never seen foxfire but that’s no surprise.  I’d have to drive to a very dark place (how far?) and wander in the woods at night looking for a faint glow, hoping I don’t encounter a mammal I don’t want to meet.  Spooky!

Have you seen foxfire?  Where?

(photo of foxfire in Allegany State Park, New York by highlatitude on Flikr, Creative Commons license.  Click on the photo to see the original)

43 responses so far

43 Responses to “Glow in the Dark”

  1. Doug Baumanon 08 Oct 2011 at 9:07 am

    I’ve never seen it, and I’ve lived in the woods all my life. Many times I’ve been out at night (no city lights) and haven’t seen it. Can’t wait to hear where a good place to see this around here is.

  2. Mom Teeon 08 Oct 2011 at 9:23 am

    I always wondered how they got the name of the “Foxfire” books of the 60’s/70’s (right date?). Now, I know.

  3. John Englishon 08 Oct 2011 at 11:16 am

    I’ve seen Jack-o-lantern mushrooms at Todd Sanctuary, but never foxfire. The mushrooms are a rather startling sight when you come upon them unexpectedly!

  4. Joshon 08 Oct 2011 at 8:46 pm

    Do you happen to know why on earth a fungus would want to waste carbohydrates (or other organic molecules) on emitting light? Typically its more efficient to convert them into more useful forms of energy, such as chemical energy in the form of ATP that can be used to perform the necessary reactions for life. I can’t imagine what evolutionary advantage it would give the mushroom to glow in the dark (probably due to my lack of imagination).

  5. Kate St. Johnon 09 Oct 2011 at 6:57 am

    Seems it’s not a waste to the fungus because gets its energy using this chemical reaction: the more it grows the more it glows. It’s ingenious that one chemical reaction (bioluminescence) is the opposite of another (photosynthesis). Nothing is lost.

  6. Joshon 10 Oct 2011 at 4:48 pm

    Perhaps I’m just misunderstanding, but I can’t see how using useful energy like carbs to make useless energy like light is anything but wasteful. Also, I don’t see why an organism would evolve something like bio-luminescence if it didn’t give it an evolutionary advantage. Just saying. . .

  7. jeanon 25 Oct 2011 at 8:26 am

    i have seen foxfire in eastern tn.

  8. David Son 24 May 2012 at 2:15 pm

    Sorry to “reactivate” an older conversation; I have been ~8 months away from Kate’s blog, but would like to weigh in on this one.

    I think that when the organic matter (i.e. mostly cellulose or complex sugars) is broken down by the fungus, a photon is naturally emitted as a part of the process. It is useless to the fungus, but it is not deliberate “waste”. The energies made available from a chemical reaction are a function of the bonds that are broken. Some higher energies cannot be captured, and are lost as a photon (or as a low level of heat).

    It is mistaken to think that every extant biological trait exists because it confers an advantage. Some characteristics persist simply because: (1) they were created ‘randomly’, as all traits are, AND (2) the trait confers no DISadvantage.

    The light emission occurs because chemical reactions are occurring. The fungus is using what chemical energy it is able to use easily and/or efficiently. The light probably confers no advantage. The light also probably confers no disadvantage.

    Amillaria mellea is a wonderful edible mushroom (to be eaten with extreme caution!!). If the woods were full of people (or light-sensitive animals) looking for them, only the least light-emitting specimens would survive. Either the light emitting trait would diminish/disappear, or the mushroom might.

  9. Teri Son 04 Oct 2012 at 3:45 pm

    Hi All. I found this discussion while researching the science specifics of “Foxfire” for my friends and thought I would share my experience with Foxfire. We spotted some last night while horseback riding at Lord Stirling Stables in Somerset County N.J. It was dark and very foggy – about 98% humidity and 71 degrees F. We were on wooded riding trails near the Great Swamp Refuge. This is not the first time I have seen Foxfire on these paths. Back in July it was even more obvious. The type here looks like glowing embers under the leaves or fallen tree trunks. I even had it “displaying” along my driveway at home (NJ) in July which was a surprise. I hadn’t picked up old leaves and dead tree bark under my forsythia bushes, giving it an ideal environment , I suppose. It was very humid and warm. It cannot usually be seen there. The conditions have to be just right.

  10. Dougon 06 Oct 2012 at 12:53 am

    I have seen foxfire in Western Washington state. I was 8 years old and we were leaving my cub scout camp. I looked up the trail and saw an entire stump glowing in the dark. At first I thought I was seeing things, but as we got closer I realized that it was a glowing stump. I broke off a piece of the stump and took it home. It stopped glowing once the wood dried out.

  11. Faithon 14 Oct 2012 at 10:42 pm

    I live in Missouri and we saw some last night. We had the coon dogs out and while stopping to listen to them bark to see where they were, we noticed a glowing on a log by us. I picked some to get a better look at it at home under the light.
    It looks like a small mushroom you might see anywhere in the woods. The next day there wasn’t any glow left. I heard older folks talk about it and
    they said it was rare to see it. The temperature was about 70 degrees that night.
    I have seen it once before about 6 or 7 years before around the same area. Conditions must be just right for it to grow here.

  12. Devonon 29 Nov 2012 at 6:25 pm

    Thank you for this description and introducing me to the term “foxfire”. I saw this phenomenon about 15 years ago and had no idea what it was. As far as we could tell it was just a piece of bark that could glow in the dark. When looking at the bark under the light, we could see nothing remarkable about it. There was no visible trace to where the glowing material was.

    I always guessed that it was some sort of fungus but could never figure out what kind. I even asked people who I believed to be experts and they had no clue. I’ve often gone back to the same area to try to find more but never saw it except for that one year. I think I might have to go back and check again. But yes it doesn’t glow very bright so if you’re hiking at night with a flashlight, you probably won’t see it. It was one of our favourite past times at the time to do “night hikes”; hiking on trails far away from the city lights without the aid of flashlights. This is probably why we were able to find it.

  13. dana Foxon 04 Aug 2013 at 9:09 pm

    woke up last night at our campsite on the little emory river in tennessee and was amazed to see an entire two ricks of stacked hardwood fire wood glowing with bio luminescence. It was eerie, beautiful and sorta made me feel bad to add more of the wood to the fire. What a beautiful site though!

  14. Roger Slightomon 27 Jul 2014 at 10:33 pm

    We were camping last night and woke up before sunrise to find wood chips glowing. We had created the chips the previous night in the process of cutting firewood. Neither of us had seen it before. The conditions must have been just right, cool & humid but not raining. It looked magical because it was sprinkled all over the ground.

  15. Roger Slightomon 27 Jul 2014 at 10:41 pm

    I forgot to mention that we were camping by a lake in central Illinois.

  16. Cindy Greenowon 28 Jul 2014 at 6:56 pm

    Just seen this phenomenon 2 days ago, very weird camping in a field in Devon owned by friends who cut up a fallen tree for the fire. All the wood glowed including the chips on the ground! Never seen anything like it, totally amazing experience.

  17. Amanda Mon 31 Aug 2014 at 4:16 pm

    Last night at our camp site in Ohiopyle State Park (Pennsylvania) my husband and I witnessed this for the first time ever. I must say it was pretty amazing!

  18. thomas zuron 05 Sep 2014 at 2:41 am

    Just experienced this for the first time tonight sept.5 2015. I have worked for the forest service in many ways and spent many nights in the mountains without ever setting anything like this. Im in western mass breaking trees up for a fire and get very spooked by this phenomenon. Excitedbut

  19. Belinda Ton 22 Sep 2014 at 1:33 am

    It’s Sept. 21st 2014. My husband and I are camping in Willamette National Park at a place called McKenzie Bridge campground. We split some wood earlier in the day from a short log left behind from a previously cut downed tree. As we collecting our fire wood up for our next stay and because we thought it was getting ready to rain. My Husband started picking up the cut pieces,we noticed something glowing on some of them. First reaction was to check it out in the bright light. We seen nothing but a nice piece of hard wood so we placed in our black trash bag to our surprise you could see it glowing even brighter through the black trash bag. Once again Nature has another beautiful surprise to show off. The last time we seen something similar was in the Ocean while sailing in the night. I felt so fortunate to be able to witness it first hand with my hubby. Definitely a night to remember. Thanks so much for the explanation. So very cool:)
    B & B Tackett

  20. Jton 11 Nov 2014 at 7:50 pm

    Tonight was the first time I’ve seen fox fire. I live in Mississippi and I just got done splitting some fire wood from a tree that’s been dead for little over a year. It’s cool to walk outside to see my wood pile glowing.

  21. M Heilmanon 24 Dec 2014 at 11:26 am

    My husband and I have noticed patches of bioluminescence in 3 or 4 trees in our yard this fall. It’s certainly interesting, but I’m wondering if it’s indicates a problem. We first saw it in one tree, now it seems to be showing up in small patches in other trees – up in the branches. Does anyone know if something harmful is happening to the trees? Thanks!

  22. Kate St. Johnon 24 Dec 2014 at 2:44 pm

    M. Heilman, the glowing is caused by Armillaria, a fungus that feeds on the heartwood. Eventually the fungus weakens the tree and causes it to break and fall over. If you want to preserve the trees, have an arborist look at them.

  23. airikaon 10 May 2015 at 2:45 pm

    I encountered some foxfire wood last night its amazing. Im in washing state. We were burning brush at night and came across a whole pile of it Last night.

  24. Claudia Galeon 12 May 2015 at 11:32 pm

    I just arrived home, at 11:30 pm, after having seen my first foxfire phenomenon. I had never even HEARD of this fungi before…and knowing that it was a “natural phenomenon” I was about to see, I had no idea how “other worldly” it would eventually seem to be.

    It was not only luminescent….glowing on it’s own through the above mentioned chemical reactions….it was, as one fellow mentioned….actually emitting light….as though it had an energy unlike ANY fungus, plant or non animal living thing I’ve ever known.

    When I googled foxfire, prior to my ride getting here, for me to see the actual THING….they showed an actual mushroom, that was a fluorescent looking “apple green”.

    I had no idea what a treat I was in for. I was lucky enough to get a 2″ slice of one of the trees….and I keep on misting it….keeping it wet….but I would GREATLY APPRECIATE if anyone could tell me the BEST way to keep this thing glowing….and these fungi alive.

    I mean, they live off of dead things, so it’s all very illuminating…..on SO many levels. Thank you, those who have bothered to read this….and ANYONE who might be able to answer my question in a timely manner (or not….)…..thank you, sincerely….

  25. Kate St. Johnon 13 May 2015 at 8:16 am

    Claudia, I’m not sure how to keep the foxfire in glowing condition though it may survive anyway in a dormant condition.

  26. Bill Burnson 17 May 2015 at 7:39 am

    When I was in the Boy Scouts in the early 1970’s we would go camping once a month and for 2 weeks we had summer camp. I saw the glowing on stumps and on dead trees quite a few times. Most of the camping we did was at Camp Glen Gray in Mahwah NJ near the NY state line. All of our camping trips were in NJ or NY state. I remember kicking apart rotten wood or using an ax to chop weed that would glow. The glowing of the chips created would subside over the course of a few days. Come to think of it, the times we would find the glowing wood would be during summer camp or late spring or early fall trips.

  27. Kim Tayloron 03 Jun 2015 at 12:46 am

    My grandson found this tonight by a pond in our back farm~lewisburg, ky! I looked it up and this is where I got~but it’s the first time I ever seen it in my life~beautiful!

  28. Paul Danger Kileon 19 Jun 2015 at 7:13 am

    Where: Adirondack Mountains, Fort Ann, New York, USA
    When: Early 1980s
    What: Green glowing forest: there were no visible mushrooms, and the fungus could not be seen by the naked eye, except when it was glowing. I kept a piece of wood from the forest floor, but my mother threw it out.

  29. Marsha messeron 29 Jun 2015 at 11:03 pm

    Me and my kids have just found fox fire behind our house in Mississippi. There was a lot of it and it was green.

  30. Ryanon 14 Jul 2015 at 11:02 pm

    I’ve seen it just this weekend! It was in a damp section in the red river gorge in Kentucky. Was seriously one of the coolest things I have seen!

  31. vincenton 21 Jul 2015 at 12:02 am

    Black River Falls Wisconsin. Wow, this is amazing! Never see anything like this before. Lot’s of it. Thought I had krytonite, but after I smell it, NOT…it’s just a mushroom or fungi.

  32. libbydaddyon 28 Jul 2015 at 7:26 pm

    I have, twice in 1 summer. On trails in a NJ bedroom community. Once because an animal dug holes in a stump along a trail and the other time where a rotten tree fell over and the inside of the stump and log where it met the stump glowed. This was again by surprise in a bedroom community in NJ. So it can be seen (on clear nights with no cloud cover) in otherwise what might be considered bright places. Thanks for the info!

  33. Hutsonon 02 Aug 2015 at 9:23 am

    Saw foxfire this past weekend in cosby campground in the great smoky mountain national forest. It was growing on a downed log right outside my tent. Of course I had no idea what it was at the time. I literally thought some irresponsible camper must have burst a glow stick. When it was back the next night I realized nothing man made glows that long. It was absolutely amazing. I thought I was in the movie Avatar. Haha. Anyway, thanks for clearing up my questions.

  34. renee Lauxon 07 Sep 2015 at 4:45 pm

    Tionesta PA – chopped wood for campfire – downed a dead pine tree – that night the whole pile of stacked fresh cut wood was glowing and often it had permeated under the bark and was on the inside of the wood. It was amazing and bright. You could not see any fungi or growth under bright light- looked like a fresh cut log but in the dark there were glowing streaks all over the logs and the wood chips all over the ground where we chopped the wood. Amazing!

  35. Jeanee Marroquinon 15 Sep 2015 at 11:55 am

    i did!! Last night IN MY LIVING ROOM,!!!
    Just cut wood for the stove laying in the living room floor. 3:10 am and I was about to throw more wood on the fire and noticed light.
    I looked and several pieces I had just brought in were GLOWING! I pulled the bark off and it was amazing. I went straight to the computer and saw your post.
    I am in Chugiak, Alaska….. Right outside of Anchorage.

    Thanks for the info! I will bring in more tonight and if I see it again, I will see about snapping a picture.

  36. Amber Winnellon 20 Sep 2015 at 1:34 am

    My husband told me about this “glow in the dark wood” YEARS ago, brought it home with him, at dark that night it didn’t glow… I thought he was either nuts or pulling my leg… Low & behold we are camping outside the city limits in Charleston, WV tonight and THERE IT WAS!!! I am like a kid on a scavenger hunt now LoL… Ps: we live here in WV as well…

  37. Debby Hookon 30 Sep 2015 at 9:18 pm

    We saw foxfire last night, 2:35 a.m., (Sept. 29, 2015) when a dead tree fell over after an all-day rain, in our woods north of Shippensburg, Pennsylvania. It glowed bright white in the interior of the tree where it broke off, and in the root remaining in the ground. Tonight we revisited it; it’s still glowing, but appears to have spread slightly and glows less intensely; it’s more like a light from within. We see evidence of whitish threads on the wood that glows.

  38. Kenon 22 Oct 2015 at 11:45 pm

    Saw some here tonight in Peace River, Alberta. At first I thought somebody put their Christmas lights up early. But it was the wood of a tree on its last legs. Mostly blue glow but some red too. This was tree in my back ally. Quite bazaar. Never saw this before. Thanks for the info.

  39. Charleson 12 Nov 2015 at 7:24 am

    I have foxfire in my yard 2 faint green masses in the tree next to my house in my neighbors yard. I live in North Carolina

  40. Ryanon 15 Nov 2015 at 8:24 pm

    I know this is an old thread but I believe there is foxfire in the trees behind my house. It looks like small, glowing green orbs. I tried to take a picture with my phone but they didn’t come out great.

  41. Ryanon 15 Nov 2015 at 8:25 pm

    Sorry. Forgot to say that I live on Long Island, NY. Patchogue.

  42. katlupeon 17 Nov 2015 at 9:34 am

    Yes, we have just cut down an old apple tree that was rotting. Half of it fell down, so my husband cut the rest of it down. Last night, we saw the firewood on our hearth glowing. We had never heard or seen of it before. That is why I was researching it and found your blog. Our wood seemed to have a yellowish /green glow. This tree had a big pile of fungi growing at the foot of it around the trunk. The funny thing is that this year, this apple tree had a huge harvest of apples and they were the best we ever tasted from it. Then part of it fell over and it was all rotted, it was very old, and even the roots were rotted.

    We are in the state forest near Oxford, NY.

  43. lynnon 24 Nov 2015 at 9:32 pm

    I’ve seen foxfire in several trees along my driveway the last two nights. There is a nearly full moon and the temperature is below freezing. This is Maine in November. Most is bluish, but there are a few glowing red.

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