Mushrooms have been valued as both food and medicine throughout the world for thousands of years, but until recently, many in the West associated all mushrooms with poison. The recent surge of Western interest in medicinal mushrooms shows that this attitude may be changing, however. Japanese products containing LEM, a polysaccharide-rich extract from the shiitake mushroom, and similar extracts from maitake are currently undergoing trials in Japan and the United States to see whether they are effective treatments for various cancers and AIDS. Currently, the total world worth of the pharmaceutical and nutraceutical products derived from mushrooms is estimated at more than $1.2 billion.
Reishi and maitake are medicinal mushrooms that recently have become popular in the United States; they are described below. Should you have an inclination to incorporate these or other mushrooms into your diet, preparation suggestions are included. If you choose to gather your mushrooms from the wild, a healthy respect for the possibility of eating a poisonous one is good. Be an informed gatherer. It is best for beginners to learn how to identify edible mushrooms from local experts; community colleges often offer good mushroom-hunting classes.
The Latin word lucidum means ``shiny'' or ``brilliant'' and refers to the varnished surface of reishi's cap, which is reddish orange to black. The stalk usually is attached to the cap at the side. In Japan, 99 percent of reishi growing in the wild are found on old plum trees, although wild reishi are rare.
Medical uses: For 4,000 years, the Chinese and Japanese have called upon reishi to treat liver disorders, hypertension, arthritis, and other ailments.
Recent test-tube and human studies have demonstrated antiallergic, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and antioxidant effects. When more than 2,000 Chinese patients with chronic bronchitis were given reishi syrup in tablet form during the 1970s, 60 to 90 percent showed a marked improvement in health, including increased appetite, within two weeks.
Precautions: Although reishi extracts have shown very low toxicity in animal experiments, the long-term effects of reishi and its derivatives are still virtually unknown.
Taking reishi: Reishi may be taken in syrups, soups, teas, tinctures, and tablets, and by injection. The form and dosage should be worked out in consultation with your health-care provider.
Maitake means "dancing mushroom'' in Japanese; in ancient times, people who found the mushroom were said to dance with joy because it could be exchanged for its weight in silver. Alternatively, the name may derive from the way in which the small, fan-shaped fruiting bodies overlap like butterflies in a wild dance. In the United States, they also are known as hen-of-the-woods because the mass of mushrooms looks like fluffed-up feathers. The stalks are often fused, massed at the base of stumps and on roots. They are common in eastern North America, Europe, and Asia. Maitake collectors always forage alone and never divulge the location of their treasure, even to their own families. In Japan, they traditionally mark their hunting grounds with hatch marks on trees bordering the trove and keep others out of their hunting areas.
Until cultivation techniques were devised in 1979, maitake was harvested from the wild. In 1990, Japanese cultivators produced nearly 8,000 tons of maitake, and production is expected to increase with expanding exports to the West.