Reishi, The “Chinese Mushroom of Immortality”


Reishi is the most famous shelf fungus in the world.  It can easily be grown or harvested wild, then dried and powdered or made into a tincture.  It is sold by a thousand manufacturers as a medicinal “cure-all” supposedly good for cancer, blood pressure, the heart, ulcers, asthma, hepatitis, HIV, and just about anything else you can think of.  

Makes one think twice a bit, doesn’t it?  

The most fertile claim is for its use as a cancer preventative by activating cells to fight tumors.  These claims are made, of course, by those selling Reishi under the name of Ganoderma lucidum, Reishi, Lingzhi and other names.  

Does it work?  Well, like a lot of other medicinal fungi, there is a reasonable possibility that it may help with some bodily maladies, but science has not yet proven well-enough how effective it is nor for what ailments it specifically works against, and at what dosage one should be using it.

Reishi is a shelf or bracket fungus that is part of the larger group of decaying fungi called Polypores.  They often grow off the sides of usually conifer trees, especially white pines in our area, once they are dying or dead.  They have a short, or absent stem and are directly attached to the tree.  Their underside shows tiny pores from which they release their spores, and their tissue is hard and tough.

Reishi actually includes a variety of species in the Ganoderma genus with shiny, red lacquered caps.  Ganoderma, from Greek, refers to "shiny skin."  The list of species which are often referred to as Reishi include Ganoderma lingzhi, tsugae, lucidum, sessile and curtisii.  Ganoderma lucidum is the most famous species name but studies have revealed that it only occurs in Europe, parts of Asia and in limited areas of northern California and Salt Lake City.  

What we most often see in our area is Ganoderma tsugae and Ganoderma curtisii.  The former more typically on softwoods and the later on hardwoods, but not exclusively.  They grow rapidly beginning in early summer and along with a shiny purplish-red surface they will have a white margin to the cap during active growth.  

Analysis shows that most of the Reishi sold as a medicinal mushroom have no Ganoderma lucidum in them at all, rather they are made from the Asian lacquered species, Ganoderma lingzhi.  Probably because it is the easiest to cultivate.  The tissue, like that of most polypores, is so tough and filled with chitin, the same chemical found in lobster shells, that it is very hard to digest without cooking it, and even then it can cause a stomach upset.  Some people are so enthusiastic in their belief of its benefits that they convince themselves you can even actually eat it.  

Imagine slicing up an old shoe, sautéing it, and eating it?

So, is Reishi really the “Thousand Year Mushroom” or the “Mushroom of Immortality?”  As stated by mycologist Dianna Smith, “Belief in the antiquity of use (of Reishi) is somehow supposed to make this polypore more acceptable as an empirically verified scientific medicine.  This is unfortunate.  It is impossible to find supporting evidence that Ganoderma lingzhi (Reishi) has a 2,000 to 7,000-year history of use in China … it is not in fact mentioned in any original Chinese medical source prior to recent times, and it certainly was never recommended as a cure for heart disease or cancer!”  

Part of its fame was exaggerated in the days of Mao Tse Tsung when he was faced with the task of managing a huge poor country.  There were never enough funds to come close to providing universal health care in China, so the use of shaman, herbal medicines and mushroom medicines (called “myco-medicines”) were encouraged as a way of managing the health of the populace in a decentralized, traditional, and largely uninformed manner.

It is up to the user to experiment with and come to your own conclusions regarding myco-medicines keeping in mind that the placebo effect of just about any dietary supplement can be fairly powerful all on its own.  

Considering the lack of funding for scientific research on natural medicines, with herbs and plants often taking precedent over fungi, the proof of all this is lies somewhere, unfortunately, out there in the far distant future.

Gary Gilbert lectures about fungi locally and through the Boston Mycological Club.  Some of his recipes will be featured in the soon to be released Fantastic Fungi Community Cookbook, a compendium of recipes from myco-chefs throughout the country.

ganodermataceae, medicinal fungi, edible mushroom, nutrition, king of herbs, hepatitis, gary gilbert, boston mycological club, dianna smith, herbal medicines, reishi, mao tse tsung, dietary supplement, lingzhi, asthma