Birch Polypores Piptoporus betulinus
Shiitake Lentinus edodes
Reishi Ganoderma lucidum
Artist's Conk Ganoderma applanatum
Chicken of the Woods Laetiporus sulphureus
Hen of the Woods Grifola frondosa
Chaga Inonotus obliquus
Immune activating fungi have been used as allies against disease for millennia. Mysterious mushrooms and fungi are classed in a kingdom all their own. They can’t be called plants, as they are much more primitive, nor are they animal. Fungi actually possess some characteristics of both plant and animal. In fact, I’ve learned they are more closely related to humans than to plants!
Fungi are helping organisms on this planet. They break things down and transform them. They help us to be optimally nourished. They are the ultimate recyclers. Reishi in particular, is a spirit nourishing, immune-enhancing fungi with thousands of years of safe use. It is a consistent part of my support system and I am rarely without it. I usually make a double extracted syrup, which means after making the water-based decoction, I add a quarter of the volume in reishi tincture in addition to the honey. I enjoy adding a tablespoon or so of this adaptogenic syrup to a glass of water or cup of tea or cocoa. Honey magnifies the benefits, so say the wise ones. I think of it as a super food for body, mind and spirit. Other medicinal mushrooms I appreciate and use often, include the birch polypores, maitake and shiitake.
Many of our common Eastern woodland mushrooms possess immune-enhancing properties, including maitake, chicken of the woods, the abundant birch polypores, turkey tails and honey mushrooms.
Birch polypores are commonly given to chemotherapy and radiation patients in Japan and have been shown to increase survival rates. The body receives deep nourishment from medicinal fungi, as the nutrients and medicinal properties of mushrooms penetrate deep into the bone marrow - so much so, that some have referred to using medicinal mushrooms as herbal bone marrow transplants!
Shiitake mushrooms are native to Japan, China and Korea, where they have grown and been consumed since prehistory to mobilize the immune system to fight off disease. Fourteenth century Chinese physician, Wu-Rui, described it as a food that accelerates vital energy, nourishes the chi, staves off hunger, cures cold, and penetrates into the blood circulatory system. Shiitake nourishes our immunity and is tumor inhibiting. Shiitake has been effectively used and scientifically proven in studies over the past thirty years to treat heart disease, viral infections, parasites and cancer. One of its most important constituents, lintinan, a polysaccharide, stimulates immune-competent cells, stimulates T-cell production and increases macrophage activity. Shiitake is active against viral encephalitis, prevents metastasis of cancer to the lungs and reduces the side effects of cancer treatments. The mushrooms enhance cardiovascular health and protect our healthy cells from microbial pathogens.
Shiitake mushrooms have a meaty texture and an earthy, smoky flavor. Traditionally they are added to soups and stews and cooked for about two hours. Remove the stems and sauté or add to stir-fries and sauces. Shiitake mushrooms provide an excellent plant-based source of iron, mood balancing vitamins B2, B3 and B6, immune boosting vitamin D, folate, zinc, selenium and fiber.
Reishi and Artist’s Conk Called reishi in Japan and ling zhe in China, the Ganodermas are powerful immune-enhancing mushrooms and adaptogens with potent anti-cancer properties. Both sweet and bitter, the Ganodermas are potent free radical scavengers, eliminating these highly reactive chemicals from the bloodstream before they can damage the DNA of healthy cells. Ganodermas are strongly cancer protective and actually help break down and dissolve tumors.
Reishi mushrooms are an excellent addition to your diet if you are run down, suffering from long-term stress and/or low immune function. Reishi is an immune modulator that effectively increases leukocyte production, promotes lymphatic health, promotes phagocytosis, stimulates T-cells, promotes the proliferation of antibodies and induces generation of immunoglobulins. Scientists from Tokyo Medical and Dental University demonstrated that the ganoderic acid in these fungi could reduce cholesterol production in the liver by 95 percent.
I like to make an adaptogen mushroom tonic featuring reishi for my Earth & Spirit guests to enjoy when they arrive in our Southern Italian village. It gets them grounded and settled in, mitigates any jet lag and helps them adjust to an entirely different culture, people, language and worldview.
The Ganodermas are especially heartwarming, heart opening, promote serenity and are said to enhance spiritual faculties. I think they are an essential medicine for the times we are facing.
Reishi and Artist's Conk are hard and woody and are often referred to as shelf mushrooms. They grow on the side of either dead or living trees and are often found on birch and other hardwoods or hemlock. Artist’s Conk is very common in our Maine woods, reishi somewhat less so.
To use, slice pieces off the shelf mushroom while it is fresh and dry the slices on screens or shallow baskets. Put several pieces into any soups and stews you make, remembering to remove the mushroom pieces before eating the soup, because they are much too tough to eat (like chunks of wood).
See Herbal Pharmacy for exact directions for preparing medicinal mushrooms as tinctures, decoctions and syrups.
Chaga is a parasitic fungus found growing on birch trees. Well formed sclerotia are usually found on birch trees older than 40 years. Once infected, it takes about 3 to 5 years before the chaga can be harvested. During this time, the mushroom is actively drawing nutrients and vitality from its host tree and utilizing them for its own development. Chaga offers anti-cancer, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and immune-stimulating properties. It also helps to balance blood sugar levels, is pain-easing and protects against ulcers.
Harvest chaga only from living trees and take great care not to damage the tree or overharvest the chaga. Check several wildgathering references, go out with an experienced guide, or watch YouTube videos if you don’t know how to do it. Once harvested, it will take chaga three to ten years to get to a harvestable size again. Chaga has a shelf life once dry of only one year.
The outwards visible growth, also known as tinder conk for its use in igniting fire, is solid, black and crumbly, resembling a big lump of charcoal. You will need to chop the chaga with an axe to break it into smaller pieces.
We use all parts, the outer blackened part as well as the inner orange. The outer part contains the triterpene betulinic acid, responsible for many of chaga’s immune-enhancing and pain easing effects. Betulinic acid is toxic to cancer cells. Other constituents of chaga include sterols and polysaccharides. As is the case with most medicinal mushrooms, chaga that is wildgathered rather than cultivated is believed to be most potent.