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Book Review: Medicinal Mushrooms

By Michael Castleman
December/January 1995
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Medicinal Mushrooms: An Exploration of Tradition, Healing and Culture (Second Edition)
By Christopher Hobbs
Botanica Press
10226 Empire Grade, Santa Cruz, CA 95060, 1995
Softbound, 251 pages
ISBN: 1-884360-01-7

As Christopher Hobbs observes at the beginning of Medicinal Mushrooms: An Exploration of Tradition, Healing, and Culture, many Americans are “fungophobes” who shy away from ­eating mushrooms. And just about the only knowledge most Americans have of mushrooms’ medicinal value is that a chance growth of fungus on a petri dish of bacteria in Alexander Fleming’s lab in the 1920s eventually gave us penicillin and the ­entire spectrum of modern antibiotics. But fungophobes are missing out on some sensational taste treats, and penicillin represents merely the tip of the iceberg of mushrooms’ medicinal value.

For those whose experience with mushrooms is limited to the bland white things at the supermarket (Agaricus bisporus), Hobbs, a fourth-generation herb­alist and an internationally recognized expert on the history, folklore, botany, and pharmacology of medicinal herbs, has written a magnificent introduction to the wide world of edible and medicinal fungi. For those who already enjoy eating chanterelles, shiitake, reishi, and other more exotic fungi, Medicinal Mushrooms is sure to answer your questions and deepen your appreciation of the healing benefits of these plantlike organisms.

Although Medicinal Mushrooms is filled with scientific references, which I appreciate, it is written to be accessible to all, engaging, and straightforward. The chapters on botany, nutritional value, hunting, purchasing, storage, and preparation of mushrooms are all brief yet com­prehensive, informative with­out being too technical. The chapters on the worldwide history of medicinal mushroom use are fascinating. Hobbs provides welcome insights into the origin of the terms “fungus” and “mushroom”. The former probably emerged as a corruption of the Latin spongia, or “sponge”, a reference to the spongy quality of some fleshy mushrooms. The latter appears to have come from the French mousseron, an offshoot of the Old French mousse, “moss”, a reference to the mossy habitat of many mushrooms.

About half the book is devoted to in-depth discussions of the medicinal value of twenty-eight species, with brief examinations of fourteen more. I was particularly interested in Hobbs’s analyses of reishi and shiitake mushrooms and his discussion of kombucha, the current fad fungus and subject of controversial claims.

Reishi have been prized in China and Japan for 4000 years for treatment of many conditions, among them insomnia, asthma, and liver and kidney ­diseases. Most of this fungus’s traditional uses have been confirmed. Modern studies have ­revealed their effectiveness in treating leukemia, cancers of the nose and throat, hepatitis B, and heart disease.

Shiitake mushrooms are currently the second most commonly produced edible mushroom in the world (after the common supermarket mushroom). They are number one in nutritional value, with considerable vitamin C and high levels of many minerals, particularly calcium and zinc. Several studies have shown that chemotherapy regimens with added shiitake extract surpass standard regimens in causing tumor regression and prolonging life. Shiitake have shown promise against HIV infection and also have antibacterial and liver-protective properties.

As for kombucha tea, Hobbs considers it a “healthful flavorful beverage that is fun to make”. Although one study has suggested that it may help prevent colds, Hobbs found very few credible studies of kombucha’s effects and none to support claims of enhanced vitality and extended life-span. He supports additional research but admits, “The fantastic claims made for kombucha are undoubtedly overblown.”

Want to try the mushrooms that Hobbs discusses? Medicinal Mushrooms includes several recipes. I made the mushroom barley soup with shiitake mushrooms. It was heartier and tastier than the recipe I’ve used for years, not to mention that the shiitakes gave the soup extra nutritional value and seemed to boost my immune system. Next on my list is his recipe for polenta with chanterelles and feta.

If you like mushrooms, you’ll certainly appreciate this book. If you’ve been a fungophobe up to now, Medicinal Mushrooms just might persuade you to give these remarkable organisms a try.

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