See also: fox fire and fox-fire



A long-exposure photograph of a fungus known as a bitter oyster (Panellus stipticus) in Mount Vernon, Wisconsin, USA, exhibiting foxfire.

Possibly from fox +‎ fire, though the semantic connection is unclear; alternatively, the first element may be ultimately from Old French fols (false).



foxfire (uncountable)

  1. (mycology, chiefly US) Bioluminescence created by some types of fungus, particularly those growing on rotting wood.
    Synonyms: chimpanzee fire, fairy fire
    • 1832, Mark Littleton [pseudonym; John Pendleton Kennedy], “The Goblin Swamp”, in Swallow Barn, or A Sojourn in the Old Dominion. In Two Volumes, volume I, Philadelphia, Pa.: Carey & Lea, [], OCLC 2064650, page 311:
      The foxfire,—as the country people call it,—glowed hideously from the cold and matted bosom of the marsh; and, far from us, in the depths of darkness, the screech-owl sat upon his perch, brooding over the slimy pool, and whooping out a dismal curfew, that fell upon the ear like the cries of a tortured ghost.
    • 1874 June, Philip Quilibet, “Drift-wood. A Famous Evangelist.”, in The Galaxy. [], volume XVII, number 6, New York, N.Y.: Sheldon & Co., OCLC 909430306, page 842, column 2:
      Perhaps you've seen a foxfire in the woods. Well, in the dark, it looks like a live, burning coal; but when you go to it, and take it up, it's only a piece of rotten wood.
    • 1894 January 9, William Hamilton Gibson, “Foxfire”, in Harper’s Young People, volume XV, number 741, New York, N.Y.: Harper & Brothers, [], OCLC 775111362, page 189, column 1:
      [Nathaniel] Hawthorne in one of his books records a remarkable personal encounter with this weird fox-fire, and one which cost him dearly. He was on a journey by canal-boat, which had stopped en route for a brief period at midnight. During the interval he had stepped ashore, and was decoyed into a neighboring wood by the bright glow, which proved to be a fallen tree ablaze with phosphorescence. In his surprise and interest he lost all account of time, and thus missed his boat, [...] Almost any damp woods, especially after a rain, is likely to disclose its fox-fire, but it occasionally appears under circumstances where we little expect it.
    • 1911, Patsy Moore Ginns, quoting Stanley Hicks, “Ghosts, Haints, and Witches”, in Snowbird Gravy and Dishpan Pie: Mountain People Recall, Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, published 1982, →ISBN, page 185:
      People calls this "spunk," but it's foxfire. You see this hole in it? You see where I sawed it in two with the chain saw? See, this grows in hollow trees in a maple or a oak. No, it ain't mushroom; it's just really foxfire.
    • 1965, Cormac McCarthy, The Orchard Keeper, New York, N.Y.: Random House, OCLC 1033330; republished London: Picador, 2010, →ISBN, page 201:
      The rain stopped falling. They passed, leaving a trail of foxfire shuffled up out of the wet leaves like stars plowed in a ship's wake.
    • 1983, Manuel Robbins, “Collecting Fluorescent Minerals”, in The Collector’s Book of Fluorescent Minerals, New York, N.Y.; London: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, DOI:10.1007/978-1-4757-4792-8, →ISBN, page 50:
      Curiously enough, there were fluorescent displays underground that could be enjoyed without benefit of an ultraviolet lamp. One of these was fox fire, the spectral glow given off by fungi on decaying timber. In the damp darkness of the mine, pine planks 3 inches thick could become feather light and crumbly in a year.
  2. (by extension, loosely) Wood exhibiting fungal bioluminescence; torchwood.
    • 1775 November 9, Henry L[arcom] Abbot, quoting Benjamin Gale, “Description of the American Turtle. [Dr. Benjamin Gale to Silas Deane, Esq., Killingsworth, Nov. 9, 1775.]”, in The Beginning of Modern Submarine Warfare, under Captain-Lieutenant David Bushnell, Sappers and Miners, Army of the Revolution. Being a Historical Compilation (Engineer School of Application, Willets Point, N[ew] Y[ork] H[arbor], Paper; no. III), New York, N.Y.: Printed on the Battalion Press, Sergt. Carmichael and Pvt. Beck, printers, published 1881, OCLC 21994978, pages 176–177:
      On the inside is fixed a Barometer, by which he can tell the depth he is under water; a Compass, by which he knows the course he steers. In the barometer and on the needles of the compass is fixed fox-fire, i.e. wood that gives light in the dark.
    • 1820 February 21, Charles Griswold, “Art. [IX].—Description of a Machine, Invented and Constructed by David Bushnell, a Native of Saybrook, at the Commencement of the American Revolutionary War, for the Purpose of Submarine Navigation, []”, in Benjamin Silliman, editor, The American Journal of Science, and Arts, volume II, number I (number VI overall), New Haven, Conn.: S. Converse, published April 1820, OCLC 937044202, page 96:
      The navigator steered by a rudder, the tiller of which was passed through the back of the machine at a water joint, and in one side was fixed a small pocket compass, with two pieces of shining wood, (sometimes called foxfire,) crossed upon its north point, and a single piece upon the last point. In the night, when no light entered through the head, this compass thus lighted, was all that served to guide the helmsman in his course.
    • 1859 September, “Art. II.—The Education, Labor, and Wealth of the South. [...]”, in J[ames] D[unwoody] B[rownson] De Bow, editor, De Bow’s Review and Industrial Resources, Statistics, &c.: [], volume II (New Series; volume XXVII (Old Series)), number 3, New Orleans, La.; Washington, D.C.: [J. D. B. De Bow], OCLC 9332366, page 268:
      [An American university is] the house and home of American civilization—a dwelling place not lighted with foxfire tapers or artificial lights to disguise nature, as the institutions of learning in Europe are, but with the light inherent in nature's truths and in the revealed word of God, honestly translated and interpreted.
    • 1876, William H[amilton] Gibson, “The Deer”, in The Complete American Trapper, or The Tricks of Trapping and Trap Making: [], New York, N.Y.: James Miller, OCLC 84045072, book VI (Steel Traps and the Art of Trapping), page 218:
      There is still another method of night hunting by the salt lick. [...] When night approaches, the hunter finds a piece of phosphorescent wood or "fox fire," and places it on the ground, at a point which he has previously determined to be on a direct line of the aim of his gun. The "fox fire" is plainly seen from the tree, and as soon as it is darkened he knows that it is obscured by the deer, and he pulls the trigger and kills his game.
    • 1884 December 10, Mark Twain [pseudonym; Samuel Langhorne Clemens], chapter XXXV, in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: (Tom Sawyer’s Comrade) [], London: Chatto & Windus, [], OCLC 458431182, page 356:
      [...] Tom said we got to have some light to see how to dig by, and a lantern makes too much, and might get us into trouble; what we must have was a lot of them rotten chunks that's called fox-fire and just makes a soft kind of a glow when you lay them in a dark place.
    • 1995, Robert E. Nichols, Jr., Birds of Algonquin Legend, Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan Press, →ISBN, page 96:
      When they died, the others built fires to smoke them, and then covered them with birch bark. Every bit was covered with bark. Not a hair was left out, and nothing could go in. They'd put sticks of fox fire near them.

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