Medicinal Mushrooms in History


Medicinal Fungi in History

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Note: The article on this page is not an excerpt from the book, "Medicinal Mushrooms." It is an article by the webmaster of this site.

5,300 years ago, an injured and starving man from Val Venosta, Italy, fled across an Alpine glacier to escape pursuers. But his enemies caught up with him and with a practiced arrow-shot penetrated his shoulder blade and subclavian artery. Before long, he was dead from blood loss. "Oetzi the Iceman" was found mummified in 1991. On his person were pouches containing mushroom remedies, the oldest known proof in existence of medicinal mushrooms usage.

One of the mushrooms was Birch polypore - Piptoporus betulinus - which it is believed he used as a remedy against intestinal parasites. Eggs of the whipworm parasite (Trichuris trichiura) were found in his intestines. The other mushroom in the possession of Oetzi was Tinder fungus - Fomes fomentarius - which has been traditionally used in Europe to cauterize wounds and stop bleeding.

Both of these are polypores, so named because they have pores instead of gills underneath. No species of polypore is known to be poisonous. They usually grow on trees, dead or alive.

Few polypores are edible because they are hard and fibrous. But people in the Orient as well as the Occident have used them to treat a multitude of diseases for ages. Usually in the form of a tea that would be brewed and drunk; sometimes as a poultice placed on a wound or over an aching body part.

Native American traditions tell of using different kinds of polypore extracts to combat smallpox and other diseases introduced with the arrival of Europeans. This includes Reishi (Ganoderma resinaceum), Chaga (Inonotus obliquus), Birch polypore, and Turkey tail (Trametes versicolor), as well as the now rare and endangered species Agarikon (Fomitopsis officinalis).

Although nearly extinct today, Agarikon was once common in the old-growth forests of ancient Europe. Greek physician Dioscorides referred to Agarikon as a remedy for tuberculosis in Materia Medica, 65 B.C. It's the earliest record of a medicinal mushroom in European literature. Two millennia later, the historic use of Agarikon in Poland was put down in writing in the article Medicinal mushrooms in Polish Folk Medicine by K. Grzywnowics. Again, it included lung conditions, as well as rheumatoid arthritis and infected wounds.

While mushrooms have been utilized medicinally in the West, it pales in comparison to the adulation they have received in the Orient. Next follows three species of medicinal mushrooms from Asia, which simply have to be included in any article on medicinal mushrooms.

First out is Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum), sometimes nicknamed the "Mushroom of Immortality" due to its wide range of healing properties. Reishi was mentioned in Shen Nong's Herbal Classic from around 2,000 years ago. Many ancient Oriental temples and wood-carvings include images of this highly revered "cure-all" fungus.

Next is a mushroom from Tibet known as Cordyceps, a small fungus growing out of the bodies of silk caterpillars. Its first mention was in The Classic Herbal of the Divine Plowman, 200 A.D. Traditionally used as an aphrodisiac, today it's popular with athletes to improve strength and stamina.

Last but not least is the medicinal mushroom Shiitake, better known as a culinary delight. However, Shiitake is also one of the most research mushrooms for medical properties. Commercial cultivation of Shiitake began about a thousand years ago in China. Medicinal uses include immune enhancement, antibiotic and more. Shiitake extracted Lentinan polysaccharide is approved as an anti-cancer drug in Japan.

Modern research into medicinal use of mushrooms began in earnest in the late 1960's Japan. One pioneer, Dr. Ikekawa, discovered that families of mushroom growers had significantly lower cancer rates than their surrounding communities. Scientific research into medicinal mushrooms has expanded exponentially since that time and continues to increase and intensify until this day. Medicinal mushrooms are still in the process of making history.

Note: The article is informational only. The FDA has not approved mushrooms for medicinal use. Always consult a licensed medical practitioner before using any product to treat an illness.


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Mushroom Books:
All That the Rain Promises and More, by Arora
Growing Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms, by Stamets
Mushroom Cultivator, by Stamets & Chilton
Mushrooming without Fear, by Schwab
Mushrooms Demystified, by Arora
Mycelium Running, by Stamets
National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms, by Lincoff
Psilocybin Mushrooms of the World, by Stamets & Weil
Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom
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History of Medicinal Mushrooms
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Other Books & Resources:
Agaricus blazei Murill, Discover the Beta Glucan Secret
The Complete Mushroom Book (cook book)
Cordyceps: China's Healing Mushroom
Maitake Magic
The Mold in Dr. Florey's Coat (penicillin)
North American Boletes
The Power of Japanese Red Reishi
Shiitake: The Healing Mushroom
The Truffle Hunter (children's book)

Medicinal Fungi in History