Benefits of Medicinal Mushrooms and How to Use Them

Medicinal mushrooms like maitake, shiitake, reishi, oyster and chaga mushrooms can boost health when cooked and eaten or taken as a supplement.

| May/June 2001

Although we may not think of mushrooms as herbs, many of the world’s more than 38,000 species of mushrooms have medicinal uses. In his book Medicinal Mushrooms (Botanica Press, 1996), herbalist and Herbs for Health editorial adviser Christopher Hobbs writes that mushrooms have been valued throughout the world for thousands of years, both as food and as medicine.

The following are some of the best-researched and most popular species of fungi. Most of the species are now being cultivated in different parts of the world, making them more widely available and preserving native populations. Some mushrooms, such as oysters (Pleurotus ostreatus), are easy to grow at home. Others, such as turkey tails (Trametes versicolor), grow plentifully in the wild and are a good choice for harvesting if you live in an area of the country where they grow. Of course, proper species identification is essential before collecting any mushrooms in the wild. Two books by mushroom expert and herbalist David Arora, Mushrooms Demystified (Ten Speed, 1986) and All That the Rain Promises and More: A Hip Pocket Guide to Western Mushrooms (Ten Speed, 1991), are great resources for learning about mushroom hunting and identification. Your home state or city may also have an organization that offers hands-on instruction in mushroom indentification. For a list of such organizations on the internet, visit

Shiitake (Lentinula edodes)

What it’s good for: A potent immune-boosting mushroom; has antitumor and antiviral properties; lowers blood pressure and cholesterol. Hobbs writes that shiitake is ``used medically for any and all diseases involving depressed immune function, including cancer, AIDS, environmental allergies, candida infections, and frequent flu and colds.’’

Where it grows: The shiitake mushroom is found on fallen broadleaf trees such as chestnut, chinquapin, beech, oak, maple, and walnut. It isn’t found wild in the United States but is widely cultivated (and easy to grow at home). Fresh shiitake is available at many grocery stores.

How to take it: Shiitake has a delicious taste and texture, so it’s good to use fresh in cooking. Standardized-extract tablets are available.

Other information: Shiitake has high levels of calcium, vitamin B2, and vitamin C. It is the second-most widely cultivated mushroom after the common white button mushroom (Agaricus bisporus).

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