Mushrooms are fascinating life forms that grow in our natural world. They can sprout virtually anywhere, and you’ll find them everywhere from the wildest forests to our perfectly manicured lawns. Interestingly, North American culture tends to have a generally negative outlook regarding fungal species. Perhaps it’s partially due to the way they germinate growth, but a major reason is a result of their rarity in our region. While many exotic mushroom species commonly grow in countries like China and Japan, this is not the case in the United States.  Additionally, as a result of their rarity they have tended to be quite expensive and often considered a luxury item. Fortunately, due to advancements in cultivation techniques, mushrooms like the reishi, maitake, trametes, and shitake are now more widely available.

In areas where exotic fungal species are native, specifically Asian and Northern European cultures, the mushroom is held in very high esteem. Some species, like the reishi, are so revered that they have been immortalized in ancient paintings, artwork and folklore. Rich in history and nutrients, mushrooms have been used as herbal medicines for thousands of years in Japan and China and it’s commonplace to find an abundance of various mushrooms within local Asian markets for culinary purposes. In eastern countries, mushrooms are an integral part of everyday cooking with approximately 12 species commonly cultivated and sold in the marketplace for food. While mushrooms certainly have an important stamp in the world of food, it can be argued that their place in medicine is even more vital. Japanese scientists have even produced pharmaceuticals comprised of mushroom mycelium.

To get a grasp on how mushrooms work, it’s important to understand their life cycle. Typically, mushrooms are comprised of two main parts -  a cap and a stem. The underside of the cap holds the spores or “seeds” of the mushroom, which are known as gills. These gills are then carried and spread by the wind, consequently creating new mushroom growth. The classic cap and stem look, like the one that shitake has, is what generally comes to mind when people think of mushrooms. However, not all mushrooms embody this classic look. Polypores, the group to which reishi belongs, do not have gills and in many cases lack a stem. The underside of a polypore cap is composed of a tightly packed layer of pores. It is the inside surface of these pores where the spores are propagated.

One of the most interesting and important components of the mushroom is the mycelium. The mycelium is a network of fine, threadlike filaments that originates from the germination of spores. Interestingly, the mycelia is usually not visible to the human eye and stays hidden within the mushroom’s nutrient base materials. Another way to look at it is that the body of the Mushroom is the “fruit” of the mycelium, similar to the way that a pear is the fruit of a pear tree.  In contrast to standard plants and flowers that use photosynthesis, mushroom mycelia gains nutrients from dead organic matter and recycles it into a material called humus. When environmental conditions are right, the mycelia use these nutrients to generate new mushroom growth by spreading spores.

As previously mentioned, The rarity of mushrooms in North America adds to their mystery and consequently, a lot of their misconceptions. Conventionally trained nutritionists tend to assert that there is little nutritional value to mushrooms due to their low calorie content. Unfortunately, this generalization is largely a misconception partially due to cultural bias, as well as insufficient research. However, more recent studies are showing significant nutritional benefits can be derived from mushrooms, especially for those who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet.

One study titled, “The Biology and Cultivation of Edible Mushrooms” by Crisan and Sands explores a thorough nutritional analysis of over 50 species of wild and cultivated mushrooms. In this research, it is shown that dried mushrooms typically contain all essential amino acids, 9-44% of crude protein, 2-8% fat, mostly in the form of the essential linoleic acid, 3-28% carbohydrates, 3-32% fiber and approximately 10% minerals, and about 10% water content. Aside from containing beneficial levels of amino acids, mushrooms are also a positive source of thiamine, riboflavin, niacin and biotin. Some mushrooms, like shitake, also provide vitamin D.

Important to note, it has been found that many of the carbohydrates and protein contained within the mushroom may be inaccessible to humans nutritionally due to our digestive enzymes not being able to break them down. However, it is believed that drying, cooking and chewing the mushroom helps to break down its cell walls for better absorption.

It is undisputed that mushrooms can be a valuable source of food, especially for those who partake in a plant based diet. However, mushrooms have historically played a much more important role in regions that convert them into herbal medicines as a part of traditional Eastern healing practices. Some species of mushroom can be traced all the way back to the 1st century B.C. in records of “Shen Nong’s herbal”. Additionally, When the “Compendium of Materia Medica” was published in the year 1600, there were already 20 species of mushrooms documents with medicinal benefits. Fast forward to 1987 and over 272 species of mushrooms with medicinal properties are documented in the work,” Icones of Medicinal Fungi from China”.  Impressively, out of these 272 species. 60 are known to contain polysaccharides, which are shown to slow down growth in specific tumors.

Although, there are hundreds of mushrooms are known to have medicinal compounds, there are only a handful of species that have been looked at seriously, including the reishi, shiitake, maitake, Polyporus umbellatus, Trametes versicolor, Poria cocos, Cordyceps, Auricularia auricula, Hericium, erinaceus, Schizophyllum commune, Flammulina velutipes, and Pleurotus.