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I have a carved-in-stone policy of judging all survival guides by how well they describe starting a fire with natural flint and steel. Flint and steel was the state-of-the-art fire-starting method from the early Iron Age (a little over 2,500 years ago) up until matches were perfected in the mid 19th century. The problem is that matches seem to have instantly erased the collective skills needed to use the old method.

The basics are that striking flint with hardened steel heats small shavings of iron red hot. These shavings must then be caught in something that will create a glowing ember and the ember is then blown into a flame using a fine tinder. The biggest problem is finding something that will catch that red hot, but very short-lived spark. It seems like the vast majority of survival manuals say something about making a pile of dry grass, sawdust, wood shavings or something similar and showering it with sparks. While this may work about once every 1,000 tries out in the desert—someplace with a humidity of under 10 percent—it is a long way from a foolproof system of starting a fire in an emergency.

Those with a little more experience with flint and steel will suggest charred cotton cloth. As every would-be mountain man knows, this is about as good as matches, but how much char cloth do you find in the wilderness? The holy grail of flint and steel, then, is a naturally occurring material that will catch a spark without charring. One of the best is tinder conk, a parasitic fungus that grows on birch trees. Of course, you need to be someplace where birch grows and is commonly infected with the disease. I don’t know about you, but that cancels out the area I live in.

Serious survival manuals will suggest other plants they feel will catch a spark. One species I’ve noticed in several books is the biennial common mullein (Verbascum thapsus), an introduced weed native to Europe and Asia. One problem, here, I’ve never known it to grow in anything close to a wilderness area.

By luck, a very healthy one sprang up in our iris bed last summer so I made a point of saving it for an experiment this fall. Now, the survival guides say something about using the soft pith of the stem, but they don’t say if that is from a growing plant, one dried on the stalk, or one cut and dried by the user. Given time constraints, I cut mine down with a machete while it was still green and dried it in the sun for around three weeks.

Cutting the pith out with a pocketknife proved more difficult than I expected, but I soon had enough to try my luck. Or, as it actually turned out, lack of same. On a few strikes, the pith seemed almost to catch a spark; it never did. (I did find it would ignite easily if I touched it to a glowing piece of char cloth, making a useful “coal extender.”) Finally, I tried charring the mullein first. The pith would now catch a spark off flint and steel but it was very delicate compared to other materials I’ve tried.

The lesson here is that, while mullein may have worked for someone, it is of little use if it won’t work for you. Without practicing your survival skills beforehand you will never know until it is too late. Read but verify!

— Steven Dick, Editor-In-Chief

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