Mushrooms are delicious, high in vitamins, iron, and fiber, and easy to incorporate into your diet for good health. Many varieties of mushrooms have medicinal, immune boosting and anti-tumor properties, along with a wide range of health benefits. And, fried up with a little butter, fresh herbs, and sea salt, can be an absolutely divine seasonal treat. Try throwing some medicinal mushrooms in next time you make soup stock to boost the healing power of your broths.
A NOTE ON WILD MUSHROOMS AND IDENTIFICATION
>>Always double or triple check your wild picked mushrooms and only consume if you are absolutely positive you’ve ID’d it correctly. Ingesting the wrong mushroom could lead to liver failure and an extremely painful death. “If in doubt, throw it out!”<<
All of the Boletes and Polypores (bracket or shelf fungi) have pores instead of gills. These appear as small holes on the underside of the cap. Small tubes run through the cap from the flesh. A relatively small group of fungi have hanging spikes or teeth. This is a feature instantly recognizable and can greatly narrow down identification.
Look at the stem: note it’s size, shape, color, consistency. Does it have a ring on the stem? Is it hollow? Any distinct markings or color changes?
Look at the Base: Is it thicker where it joins the wood/soil? Does it have a sack or volva (remnants of the universal veil)? Does the stem extend below the soil? Take note if it is growing in a cluster or as a solitary mushroom.
Take a spore print: Do this by cutting off the stem and laying the mushroom out on paper and covering it. After several hours, lift and note the color! This will help with tricky identifications.
THE MEDICINAL MUSHROOMS
Maitake/Hen of the Woods (Grifola frondosa), Meripilaceae Family
Maitake, sometimes known as Hen of the Woods, grows primarily under oaks and dead stumps, and is composed of clusters of flattened caps that are reminiscent of a feather duster or a sitting hen. The fruit body is typically 1-3ft or across and 3-15lbs, but significantly larger specimens have been found. From the bottom, the stem and branch structure is similar to the underside of a cauliflower. Each individual cap is brown to greyish, with the occasional white tinges. Maitake has long been used in Asia, and has recently become popular in the West. It is known to have anti-tumor properties, specifically for breast and colorectal tissues, enhance the immune system response, and lower blood glucose levels. It’s also thought to increase vitality and lower blood pressure. The mushroom is typically prepared as a vegetable or as a decoction in soup broths. Maitake can be used for dyeing fabric and paper, yielding a soft yellow color when ammonia is used as a mordant. Since preparing them for cooking or drying usually leaves a lot of trim, this may be a good use for it.
Lookalikes: Berkeley’s Polypore (Bondarzewia berkeleyi) also grows under oak and looks vaguely similar but is much larger, woodier, and thicker. It fruits earlier in the season. It is edible but is not as delicious as Maitake, and grows bitter with age.
Reishi/Ling-Zhi (Ganoderma lucidum), Ganodermataceae Family
The Reishi mushroom is notable by the shiny, red varnished appearance of it’s cap. It’s pores are white to brown, and it’s flesh is usually soft or corky feeling. It’s often found growing at the base of deciduous hardwoods, such as maples, oaks, elms, and willows, throughout the northern hemisphere. It is typically an annual mushroom. The Reishi mushroom is known for it’s significant immune-enhancing, anti-tumor, and cholesterol and blood sugar reducing properties. Used traditionally in Chinese and Japanese cultures, it’s taken as a restorative daily tonic, and can be prepared as a broth or tea, although quite bitter. Extracts are used in commercial anti-cancer drugs.
Lookalikes: Hemlock Varnish Shelf, Ganoderma tsugae, grows on dead conifers such as hemlocks, and is non poisonous. It has similar medicinal properties, but is considered inferior to the Reishi.
Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor), Polyporaceae Family
Sometimes also known as Yun Zhi, Turkey Tails are an annual saprobic (dead-wood eaters) species often found growing in abundance on fallen or rotting deciduous (but sometimes coniferous) trees. They are also common on fence posts, and found May through December in Eastern North America, but as late as February in California and the Pacific Northwest. They are small, often overlapping, stalkless, leathery shelf mushrooms with alternating hairy and smooth multicolored bands on the top sides, and white pores on the bottom. Turkey Tails are used for their immune enhancing, anti-tumor, anti-viral, anti-bacterial, and anti-oxidant properties. They can be dried and used in teas, giving a woody, earthy quality to blends.
Lookalikes: Other species of Trametes look similar and have pores on their undersides but do not have multicolored bands. These are considered non-toxic but not medicinal. Stereum ostrea is often called the “False Turkey-tail”, and is similar in appearance but golden in color. They are similarly anti-microbial but have not shown to have medicinal benefits.
Umbrella Polypore (Polyporus umbellatus), Polyporaceae Family
Sometimes known as Zhu Ling, the Umbrella Polypore is more valued for it’s sclerotia, which is it’s underground growth, than it is for it’s delicious fruiting bodies. A tea is often made from the sclerotia and given to lung cancer patients in China, who in conjuntion with radiation therapy, have a significantly higher recovery rate and quality of life than those who use radiation therapy alone. They are known for their anti-tumor, immune enhancing, antibiotic, and anti-inflammatory properties. They are relatively rare, and recognized by their large, bouquet like, soft and fleshy clusters of small circular whitish and tan caps, with narrow whitish pores underneath. They have short white stalks which are attached to a basal base that grow in the summer and autumn from an underground blackish, tuber like structure near deciduous hardwood trees, especially oaks and beeches, in Eastern North America, Europe, and Japan.
Lookalikes: Maitakes, a edible and medicinal mushroom as well, which also occur in the autumn at the base of oaks, but lack any underground structure.
Chaga (Inonotus obliquus), Hymenochaetaceae Family
Chaga is a parasitic fungus recognizable as a black, stalkless, gnarly and cracked, charcoal looking growth found on the side of birch trees in the North Eastern United States, Russia, Korea, and Northern Europe year-round, but especially during autumn. They are prized for their anti-inflammatory properties and have shown to ease arthritic and rheumatic joint pain. Chaga is often found for sale in powdered form or as a tea, and have anti-tumor, anti-bacterial, anti-viral, and cholesterol reducing properties. It is a Siberian folk remedy for cancer and drunk as a tonic to keep a person healthy and vigorous.
Birch Polypore (Piptoporus betulinus), Fomitopsidaceae Family
The birch polypore is an annual mushroom found growing on birch trees in the Northern hemisphere, especially on deadwood, typically growing in abundance in the summer to autumn. It’s tough fleshed and ranges from semi-circular to kidney shaped with enrolled margins and white to brownish pores. It’s a folk treatment for curing internal parasites, and used externally on wounds, and as styptic (stops bleeding). To prepare this, dig out strips of flesh from inside the mushroom and apply directly to the wound. In addition, Birch Polypore has anti-bacterial, anti-viral, anti-inflammatory, and immune-enhancing properties. It’s too tough to eat, so it’s typically prepared as an extract, a bandage, or cut and dried to be used in broths. It also contains some medicinal properties of it’s birch tree host as a tonic and detoxifier.
Shitake (Lentinula edodes), Marasmiaceae Family
Shitake is a tough, fleshy mushroom with typically 2 inch, scaly brown caps, white gills, and tough, fleshy stems. It is one of the most popularly cultivated mushrooms in the world, especially in China, where it is called Dongu and considered a longevity tonic. It is light and peppery tasting when eaten raw, and has a strong, savory, meaty flavor when cooked, commonly known as umami. It also has anti-tumor properties and is considered something of a panacea tonic cure, promoting immunity. It’s thought to help with the treatment of AIDS and cancer due to it’s immune boosting, anti-tumor, and anti-viral properties, and has been isolated in an injectable form for cancer treatment in Asia. They’ve also shown to fortify the liver and promote cardiovascular health by helping to lowering cholesterol. They’re often found growing on deciduous wood throughout Southeast Asia, Japan, and China.
Lookalikes: Other species of Lentinula, none considered toxic.
Enoki/Winter Mushroom (Flammulina velutipes), Physalacriaceae Family
Enoki are found in two distinct varieties. In cultivation, they appear as clusters of long slender pale stems with small white caps and a white spore print, typically in a small plastic bag in the grocery store. In the wild, they grow on deciduous wood across the Northern hemisphere on trees such as maples, aspens, persimmons, mulberries, Chinese hackberries, and elms, in the autumn to spring commonly on tree wounds, overwintering in holes in the trees. They appear as clustered, small, tacky golden brown caps caps with white gills. They have short, dark, velvety brown stems. Both varieties have anti-cancer and tumor inhibiting properties.
Lookalikes: The deadly Galerina, which can appear similar, but has brown spore prints, a ring on the stem, and more rounded caps.
Oyster Mushroom/Hiratke (Pleurotus ostreatus), Pleurotaceae Family
One of the most common, conspicuous mushrooms in the Northern hemisphere. They’re found growing on standing deadwood, stumps, and logs. They typically appear in clusters of whitish, grayish, to slightly brownish flabby shelfs with white gills that run down the entire mushroom. Sometimes, they have tiny stems that are lateral or off-center, but are often found without stems. They have a white or pale lilac spore print. Oyster mushrooms not only benefit cardiovascular health, they have anti-bacterial, anti-viral, anti-inflammatory, are significantly cholesterol-reducing and have immune enhancing properties. They are also known for their ability to absorb heavy metals out of polluted sites, and have been a major part of the group Radical Mycology’s bioremediation efforts.
Lookalikes: Lentinellus looks similar, but has toothed gill edges and it’s cap has a hairy surface. It is also extremely bitter. Crepidotus has smaller caps and a brown spore print. Neither are choice edibles, but they are not known to be toxic.
Lion’s Mane/Yamabushitake (Hericium erinaceus), Hericiaceae Family
Traditionaly used in China as a tonic, digestive aid, and to promote bodily vigor, Lion’s Mane mushroom is a popular choice edible mushroom because of it’s great flavor and distinctive characteristics, making it hard to mis-identify. It’s typically found growing high enough to be just out of reach in hardwood trees in the autumn. They can grow up to 12 inches in length typically in a icicle like mass of soft, pale, fleshy spines, resembling a sea anemone or coral structure. This tooth fungi has a flavor compared to crab or abalone. It’s shown to be anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory, and tumor inhibiting.
Wood Ear/Mu-erh (Auricularia auricula and Auricularia polytricha), Auriculariaceae Family
Wood Ear has been used in China as a restorative tonic for centuries, said to be good for convalescence and debility of all kind. The fruiting bodies have anticoagulant properties, inhibiting platelet aggregation, and help reduce the risk of stroke and blood clot. It’s also shown anti-tumor actions as well as antiviral and immune boosting properties. They are typically eaten culinarily in stir fries and soups. It grows either solitarily or in clusters on hardwoods and conifers in the Northern Hemisphere, and similar species occur in the tropics and subtropics. It’s reddish brown to charcoal colored, shaped like an ear, and is thin fleshed and rubbery. They breaks easily when fresh, and are found late summer to early autumn.
Caterpillar Fungus (Cordyceps sinensis), Ophiocordycipitaceae Family
Caterpillar Fungus, known in Tibet as “winter worm, summer grass”, is a fungus that parasitizes the larvae of ghost moths and produces a fruiting fungal body. The fungus germinates in the living larva, kills and mummifies it, and then the stalk-like fungus emerges from the caterpillar corpse. Caterpillar fungus appears in grasslands during the spring and summer in the Himalayas of Tibet as small, dark, fingerlike nubs rising up out of the ground, where an insect larvae sits. They have anti-tumor, immune-stimulating, cholesterol reducing, and cardio tonic properties. They are commonly used throughout Asia to treat lymphoma and other cancers as well as for increasing blood flow, which improves endurance and enhances sexual performance. It’s commonly taken in soups or as an extract.
Lookalikes: Other species of cordyceps may appear similar at first.