Maitake means “dancing mushroom” in Japanese; in ancient times, people who found the mushroom were said to dance with joy because it could be exchanged for its weight in silver. Alternatively, the name may derive from the way in which the small, fan-shaped fruiting bodies overlap like butterflies in a wild dance. In the United States, they also are known as hen-of-the-woods because the mass of mushrooms looks like fluffed-up feathers. They are common in eastern North America, Europe, and Asia. Maitake collectors always forage alone and never divulge the location of their treasure, even to their own families. In Japan, they traditionally mark their hunting grounds with hatch marks on trees bordering the trove and keep others out of their hunting areas.
Until cultivation techniques were devised in 1979, maitake was harvested from the wild. In 1990, Japanese cultivators produced nearly 8,000 tons of maitake, and production is expected to increase with expanding exports to the West.
Medical uses: Laboratory studies have shown that maitake extract can inhibit the growth of tumors and stimulate the immune system of cancerous mice. Human clinical studies of patients with breast and colorectal cancers are under way in the United States. In China, sixty-three patients with lung, stomach, or liver cancers or leukemia who took four capsules of maitake extract three times daily before meals for one to three months showed an “anticancer” effect.
Precautions: Little information has been collected concerning the toxicity of maitake, although some cases of allergic reaction have been reported.
Taking maitake: Maitake can be found in gourmet restaurants, dried and packaged in gourmet grocery stores, and increasingly in prepared products in the United States, Asia, and Europe. As a general health supplement, I recommend taking 3 to 7 g a day in tea or in soups and other dishes.
Christopher Hobbs is a member of the Herbs for Health Editorial Advisory Board. He is author of Medicinal Mushrooms: An Exploration of Tradition, Healing, and Culture (Botanica Press, 1995) and many other books. He is a fourth-generation herbalist and botanist with more than twenty years of experience.
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