As plants die back and the rains return in Autumn, the fungi take the stage. The flowers have faded, and the leaves have curled under, its chlorophyllic contents retracting as the plants draw their vitality back underground. In this season of separation, purification, and decomposition, the fungi rule.
The return of the Autumn rains awaken the slumbering mycelium, who stretch their hyphal networks through their respective substrates–eager to display their proud, bold fruitbodies. In eager anticipation of the wild delicacies (and especially the mycorrhizal species like chantrelles, porcini, matsutakes, and Candy caps, which resist human cultivation as they grow only in association with certain tree roots), mycophiles and foragers hit the forests…raincoats, wool hats, cute little baskets and all.
All mushrooms have their mystique. Like plants, they are their own universe. Being a plant person, I was truthfully more than a bit overwhelmed to begin learning about mushrooms. Structurally, they can resemble plants. But metabolically, they are more like animals—oxygen breathing, external-stomach-having, animalistic occupants of their own dikariotic kingdom. And throughout the centuries, certain cultures have been more mycophillic and mycophobic than others. Western Europe, for the most part, eschewed our fungal friends, whereas Asian societies embraced them for food and medicine for over 2 millenia (some sources say 4 or even 7 millenia). In the Western world, we’re beginning to befriend our fungal allies and, in the process, opening previously sealed doors of perception.
Mycelium concept painting by Leo Tsang http://ltsang.blogspot.com
Learning about and understanding other life often feels like solving a riddle. I know, I know—developing these relationships is not a problem to be solved. Nevertheless I often default to thinking this way. And Reishi is one of the Emperors of Mystery—a grand riddle to solve, a mystery to decode. What makes this enigmatic mushroom perplexing is its wide reach and numerous points of contact with the human animal. Its range is extensive. It can be found wild in North and South America, Asia, and Europe. Most of its traditional use is concerned with spiritual potency and longevity, and some of the names bestowed upon it include 10,000 Year Mushroom, Mushroom of Immortality, Herb of Spiritual Potency. Reishi translate into English as “Spirit/divine mushroom”. Its Chinese name Ling Zhi roughly translates to “Spirit plant”. Written in Chinese, the 3 characters mean “shaman” “praying for” and “rain”. The latin name Ganoderma lucidum is significantly more profane—Gan=“shiny”, derm=“skin”, lucidum=“shiny”. I’ll leave it to my most capable reader to deduce Reishi’s appearance.
San Shin, a Korean mountain spirit who universal love, compassion & benevolence.
Its historic associations with longevity, spiritual potency & vigor are evident in cultural artifacts of Ancient Chinese and Japanes culures. In Japan, emperor’s staffs donned a carving of the the sacred mushroom. It was depicted in temples, tapestries, and other works of art of the era. Kuan Yin, goddess of compassion, is often depicted holding it. In some settings, Reishi was regarded as a panacea. But looking at the scope of traditional use, 4 themes can seen: treatment for an assortment of liver ailments, lung conditions (asthma, bronchitis, etc.), hypertension, and nervous conditions (insomnia, nerve pain, the like). And in TCM, it’s regarded to be warming, nourishing, detoxifying, astringent, and dispersive of stuck energy. It was used to nourish the Heart official, which stores shen (or Spirit). It was used for those with deficient qi and blood, which underlies a host of pathologies. (It also held a place in folk magic. Hung above the door, it repelled evil spirits. Women also gifted men the antler forms of Reishi to express sexual interest.)
The antler form of Reishi, which occurs when grown in a high CO2 environment. ©Ron Spinosa
(A note on taxonomy: for the purposes of this post, unless designated otherwise, Reishi means Ganoderma lucidum. For the foragers, G. lucidum is found on hardwoods. If you see a similar polypore on a conifer, chances are good that it’s G. tsugae or G. applanatum, which are now thought to be the same species. While these other species haven’t been studied as extensively, the overlap in terms of energetics, constituents, and therapeutics is growing.)
Clinical studies on Reishi are extensive. It’s the most well-studied medicinal mushroom in Western medicine. PubMed results for Ganoderma: 1080. For the sake on comparison, Trametes versicolor (Turkey Tail) comes in at 511 results, Grifola frondosa (Maitake): 217. Research supports Reishi in improving host immune response, inhibiting the histamine response, supporting cardiovascular health, lung/respiratory support (especially when combined with Cordyceps sinensis), hepatoprotection, chemoprevention, as an adjunct to chemotherapy and radiotherapy, antiviral, and as an antiinflammatory. Read More