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 www.mssf.org.
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).
What it’s good for: Reishi is useful for many ailments. It has immunostimulant properties, calms anxiety, and is used as a general tonic. It is anti-allergenic and antiviral, and is used for hepatitis and heart arrhythmias. Reishi can also be used as an antidote for poisonous mushrooms. Hobbs writes that the mushroom is “especially suitable as a calming herb for people with anxiety, sleeplessness, or nervousness accompanied by an adrenal weakness.”
Where it grows: Reishi grows on the East Coast of the United States, as well as throughout Europe, South America, and Asia. Reishi is now widely cultivated—in the past, it grew only in small quantities in the wild, so it was very expensive.
How to take it: Reishi is available dried, powdered, and in capsules, extracts, tinctures, tea, and syrup.
Other information: In China, reishi is known as ling zhi. Ling zhi belongs to China’s highest class of medicines; there, it’s considered a tonic, thought to impart strength, vigor, and longevity.
What it’s good for: The turkey tail mushroom has cholesterol-lowering effects, immune-enhancing activity, and antioxidant activity.
Where it grows: Common worldwide; turkey tail grows in many parts of the United States and Europe, and throughout China. Look for the fan-shaped, overlapping mushroom on dead logs.
How to take it: Turkey tail is most commonly taken as a tea or in capsules. It can be eaten fresh, but it’s very chewy. It also can be made into a mild-tasting soup stock.
Other information: Hobbs says that turkey tail mushrooms are an excellent fungus to collect in the wild because they are so widespread and abundant.
What it’s good for: Maitake has been shown to inhibit tumor growth in several studies. It may also help reduce blood pressure and raise HDL (the so-called “good”) cholesterol.
Where it grows: The mushroom grows commonly in the Eastern United States, Europe, and Asia. Cultivation techniques were developed in 1979, and the mushroom is now more widely available.
How to take it: Maitake can be taken as a capsule, powder, in tea, or used in cooking (such as in soups).
Other information: Maitake means “dancing mushroom” in Japanese; Hobbs writes that some say it is so named because in ancient times, people who found the mushroom danced with joy because it could be exchanged for its weight in silver.
What it’s good for: Chaga has anticancer and antitumor activity.
Where it grows: Chaga grows on birch trees and other hosts, especially in the Eastern United States, Alaska, Europe, and other parts of the northern hemisphere. Hobbs describes chaga as “a hard black, deeply cracked stalkless growth found on alder, birch, and elm.” Chaga looks as if it’s been burnt and can grow to lengths of four to five feet.
How to take it: Hobbs writes that prepared products including chaga are only available in Russia, where it is a folk remedy for cancers. In Russia, the mushroom is available as a tea, decoction, extract, or syrup.
Other information: In Russia, chaga has also been used as a tonic, blood purifier, and pain reliever.
What it’s good for: The oyster mushroom may inhibit tumors. In a study, it lowered serum and liver levels of cholesterol after two months of administration. In China, oyster mushrooms are indicated for joint and muscle relaxation, Hobbs writes.
Where it grows: The mushroom grows in layered clusters on deciduous trees throughout North America, Asia, Europe, and other areas. It is cultivated in many parts of the world and is one of the easiest mushrooms for home cultivation.
How to take it: Available dried, fresh, and in capsules.
Other information: Oyster mushrooms contain eight amino acids and vitamins B1 and B2. The mushrooms may be an excellent blood builder; oysters have 19 mg of iron per 100 g of dried mushroom.