Do you know the story? Alfred became king of the West Saxons on the death of his brother Aethelred in April 871, at a time when the Vikings had conquered most of what is now England. Alfred retained his kingdom of Wessex by negotiating a peace treaty with the Vikings but, in 878, their King Gudrum attacked unexpectedly, forcing Alfred and his loyal supporters to flee into the Somerset levels. There, Alfred was sheltered by the local people while he planned how to regain his kingdom. The story goes that he was asked by the woman he was staying with to keep an eye on the cakes (small loaves of bread) she was baking while she did some chores. Alfred’s mind wandered off to his rather more important worries and he allowed the cakes to burn, much to his hostess’s annoyance.
Whether or not it’s true, it’s a wonderful story and a very apt common name for Daldinia concentrica, a fungus that, when mature, looks very like a small round burnt cake. You’ll find it growing most often on hardwood trees, in particular beech and ash, throughout Britain and in many other countries. One of its other common names is cramp balls, but that’s a story for another day.