Book Review: Medicinal Mushrooms

| December/January 1995

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.

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