As I write this article, winter has come to the higher elevations of the Blue Ridge, even if it has not been officially declared on the calendar. Grandfather Mountain, which is the high ridge just behind my house, is white. The leaves are off the trees and the snow is covered in turkey tracks. It is supposed to warm up a good bit tomorrow, but right now a cold wind is blowing through the treetops here in the valley. There are still medicinal herbs to be found in the woods though, and for a few specifically, this is the best time of year.
These are the potent medicinal mushrooms that grow on trees. One of the great advantages of living in a temperate rainforest is that I can hunt for mushrooms nearly year-round. In warmer weather, I can go out most any day and find dozens, even hundreds, of wild edible mushrooms. Many of these are true gourmet treats like chanterelles, chicken of the woods, maitake, oysters and various boletes… they are meaty, earthy and fragrant. All mushrooms likely have medicinal properties, and the maitake especially is considered both a choice edible and a medicinal herb. The ones I hunt for in the winter are the tough, woody and usually slightly bitter medicinal mushrooms.
First in terms of abundance is Turkey Tail. Most any time of the year, I could walk into the woods just a few feet from my yard and find as many turkey tail mushrooms as I could harvest. But, there are also false turkey tails, primarily stereum ostrea. True turkey Tail is Trametes versicolor. The medicinal properties of false turkey tail are not well known, but some studies have shown them to have antifungal and antibiotic properties. It is not considered to be an edible mushroom due to its toughness which may cause stomach upset, while True Turkey Tail has been widely researched for its medicinal value and can be eaten if properly prepared. The primary difference in identifying these two mushrooms is that the false turkey tail is smooth on the underside, whereas the true turkey tail is covered with tiny pores on the underside. Traditionally, turkey tail mushrooms have been used in teas and soups. But often, you will see these dried and ground finely, included in mushroom based beverages and in capsule form. It may also be used as a double or triple extract tincture (see instructions at the end of this article). Most of the medicinal properties listed for these mushrooms come from the book, Medicinal Mushrooms by Christopher Hobbs.
Medicinal uses of Turkey Tail Mushroom include:
Improvement int he functioning of blood vessels
Improved liver function
Support of spleen function
Enhancement of immune function
Lowered serum cholesterol levels
Potential useful for cancer, diabetes, rheumatism and hypertension
Much research has been done that shows promising results in the ability of turkey tail mushroom to increase survivability odds in cancer. I am extremely hesitant to write about any potential natural “cures” or treatments for cancer and other chronic conditions. That I do not go into these in detail is not because I do not believe herbs such as Turkey Tail to be useful, but because I do not want to give anyone false hope. Cancer, especially, is highly individualized to the specific person. What may work for one person may not help another. I encourage everyone to do their own research into such topics. Turkey tail is a mushroom that can be eaten simply sliced and slowly cooked into a soup. The flavor is good and as it is so abundant, if someone is concerned with cancer or other health issues for which this herb mushroom may be useful, I would highly recommend it included with garlic, onions, ginger and other medicinal herbs in a good stock or “bone broth” based soup as a daily dietary inclusion.
Rieshi, Ganoderma lucidum is one that I most always wait for winter to harvest. This polypore is a pale tan on the underside, with a bright reddish/brown top that appears to be “lacquered”. One may easily overlook them when the leaves are on the trees. When the trees are bare and snow is on the ground, these mushrooms stand out against the grey trunks of the trees on which they grow in high relief. They often reflect sunlight when viewed from uphill. This was the herb that amazed my teacher when I was studying Traditional Chinese Medicine some years ago. We had been doing Qigong outside when the subject of ginseng came up. I told him that ginseng was hunted so much that it could be hard and even dangerous to look for in the woods. “But,” I said, “we are surrounded by medicinal herbs.” I named off a dozen or more herbs just around our feet. His eyes widened when I mentioned rieshi. “Where is rieshi,” he asked in shock? “Look up,” I answered. This mushroom, once more prized than even ginseng… called the “herb of immortality” or “the herb of spiritual potency” is so valued in Chinese herbalism that legend say it was given to ancient Taoists by a mythical turtle… something of an herbal deity. Yes, that legendary mushroom is almost common in the mountains where I live. While technically edible (sometimes candied) it is extremely tough.
Medicinal uses of Rieshi include:
Inhibition of platelet aggregation
DNA synthesis in the spleen
Adaptogenic properties (helps the body deal with stress)
Liver supportive, protective and detoxifying
Enhances bone marrow nucleated cell proliferation
Relaxes autonomic nervous system
Expectorant and antitussive ( relieves congestion and cough suppressant)
Enhances NK (natural killer cells) in immune response
Improved adrenocortical function
Increased production of Interleukin-2
Protects against damage from radiation
Increases white blood cells and hematoglobin
Chaga, Inonotus obliquus is by no means common in my area, but I run across a few from time to time. The photo at the top of this entry is from my friend, Tory Lee, an herbalist in Canada. The only change I have to find them is in the winter. Chaga grows on birch trees. When the leaves fall and snow covers the ground, the chaga stands out as a mass of black fungal growth against a background of silver bark and white snow. My strategy is to stand on a ridge top and scan for stands of birch (often near the creeks) with binoculars. This is a great time to scout for deer and bear, too, so I often combine these activities. I am told that it also grows on alder and elm, but I have yet to find any here. Chaga is often ground finely and used as a coffee type beverage and is fairly tasty, especially with some cinnamon.
Chaga is somewhat controversial among mushroom hunters and some herbalists, because it is fairly new to western herbalism, being more commonly used in Russia and Poland. Many of its traditional medicinal uses have yet to be proved in clinical studies. It has also been somewhat of a fad, with bold claims made in its marketing. I tend to be conservative in listing medicinal uses for any herb, so I have avoided internet articles even from trusted sources for this entry.
Christopher Hobbs lists its use as Anticancer and Tumor-inhibiting primarily. Other traditional uses include using a tea of this herb for:
External cleansing of the genitals
Improves appetite and reduces pain in cancer patients
Other sources list chaga as strongly antioxidant, antiviral and immune enhancing.
In my book, Herbal Medicine for Preppers, Homesteaders and PermaculturePeople, I include the following instructions for making preparations from medicinal mushrooms.
If you get into medicinal mushrooms, this is something you might do. Many.... some say most, mushrooms have medicinal properties. Shitake and Rieshi support immune function and may help against cancer. Lion's Mane helps prevent and repair nerve damage and may help with ALS. Cordyceps support immune function and oxygen utilization, increasing endurance and athletic performance. Turkey tail also is a powerful herb against cancer. Many medicinal mushrooms are very tough and it is difficult to either digest them as food or to extract their medicinal properties. In a double extraction, you chop up the mushrooms as fine as you can, and make a mushroom tincture. After the alcohol soluble constituents of the mushroom have been extracted, then you strain out the mushrooms and make a decoction of them to extract anything that is water soluble. Finally, you mix the decoction and the tincture together and take your double Extract daily, as a tonic.
A Triple Extract is Permaculture level. This is advocated by a few brilliant folks like Peter McCoy. Yeast, for instance, is a fungus. Yes, the very yeast that converts the sugars in grape juice into alcohol, are closely related to the mushrooms that digest sugars from trees and other plants. Fungi are the oldest form of life on earth. Therefore, fungi may be able to break down and process all other life forms. In a triple extract, you first brew the mushroom or any other herb, in water kefir or kombucha. This is similar to making an herbal beer, but kefir and kombucha are far more complex associations of many different "probiotic" fungi and bacteria, as opposed to isolated yeasts that are used to brew beer. Many of these fungi and bacteria are identical or closely related to our own gut flora - the "probiotics" that comprise the majority of our immune systems. In theory, these fungi and bacteria "pre-digest", break down or even assimilate the medicinal value of mushrooms and herbs, while extracting some compounds into the water and alcohol also produced by kefir and kombucha.
Many very intelligent people believe that simply brewing mushrooms and herbs in water kefir or kombucha is the highest form of extract. Others then strain out the herbs and make a tincture, then strain again and make a decoction, then combine all three into a triple extract. Honestly, I have never gone beyond just brewing the herbs in water kefir or kombucha. If I had cancer or an auto-immune disease, I probably would. Although unproven by science, I find the logic behind triple extracts to be compelling. I believe my friend and teacher, Matt Powers, called this "Jedi level!"
The information on this site is not intended to diagnose or treat any disease or condition. Nothing on this site has been evaluated or approved by the FDA. I am not a doctor. The US government does not recognize the practice of herbal medicine and their is no governing body regulating herbalists. Therefore, I'm just a guy who studies herbs. I am not offering any advice. I won't even claim that anything I write is accurate or true! I can tell you what herbs have "traditionally been used for." I can tell you my own experience and if I believe an herb helped me. I cannot, nor would I tell you to do the same. If you use any herb I, or anyone else, mentions you are treating yourself. You take full responsibility for your health. Humans are individuals and no two are identical. What works for me may not work for you. You may have an allergy, sensitivity or underlying condition that no one else shares and you don't even know about. Be careful with your health. By continuing to read my blog you agree to be responsible for yourself, do your own research, make your own choices and not to blame me for anything, ever.
"Them that don't know him don't like him and them that do sometimes don't know how to take him, he ain't wrong he's just different and his pride won't let him do the things to make you think he's right" - Ed Bruce (via Waylon and WIllie)