Fungi

How To Receive The Benefits Of Chaga … Without Consuming Chaga

chagawildfoodismStanding under the protruding, irregularly-shaped black mass, it’s hard to imagine anyone would make a fuss about this fungus.

I mean, look at it.  Certainly there are mushrooms that could seemingly outperform chaga in a beauty contest.  There’s hardly a debate about that.

It’s not a prized edible fungus, either.  Chaga is essentially a hardened mass of mycelia and much too tough to chew (though I have been known to nibble on the interior amadou from time to time).

So why is it that photographs of chaga (or growths that people want to look like chaga) inundate most mushroom identification forums with the accompanying million dollar question, “Is this chaga?”  Why is it that every nutraceutical company seems to market a chaga-containing supplement?

And why is it that chaga is so near and dear to my heart, routinely forming the foundation of my personal medicinal protocol?

Simple, really.  Chaga (Inonotus obliquus) truly is a great medicine – not because the latest health magazine said so, but because it passes two important criteria when evaluating credibility:  1) Chaga retains historical use as a medicine, and 2) Chaga has been well researched, demonstrating diverse pharmacological activity in numerous scientific studies.  Yet, as it turns out, the same holds true for many other wild species – including mushrooms, plants, and yes… even animals.

But never mind that last sentence…

The word has gotten out.  Chaga is apparently the medicinal superstar of the fungal kingdom.  This prestigious prize, however, is awarded at a cost.

Supplement companies are capitalizing on its value, requiring a continuous supply of the fungus for sales.  Mushroom hunters are seeking out the wild conks, and in some cases poor harvesting techniques are utilized, causing more harm than is needed.

Chaga, without a doubt, performs an essential role in its ecosystem, and any unnecessary disturbance to this balance could potentially produce disastrous long-term consequences.  Paul Stamets has discussed this issue in depth while suggesting a shift toward the use of cultivated chaga mycelium as a solution (1).

For some of us, sustainability is a concern.  Yet for others, access to wild chaga is the issue.  Many of us do not live in a habitat that hosts this fungus.

What are we to do in these particular instances?

You see, as remarkable as this organism is, it’s not the only one that can do what it does.  Many other species impart similar benefits to the human body when ingested, and in some cases, these species contain the same exact chemicals and compounds that are responsible for chaga’s effects.  Sometimes (gasp), other species medicinally outperform our beloved chaga (I know, I know… in the words of Metallica, “Sad But True”).

What does all of this mean?

Well, it just so happens we can essentially receive the benefits of the chaga mushroom … without consuming chaga.

Now, before we proceed, I’ll provide this little disclaimer:  Yes, I am aware that an organism cannot be reduced down to its chemical components.  I have written about this in the past.  We cannot simply create the whole of anything from its myriad parts.  Nature doesn’t work like that.  Chaga constitutes much more than every compound ever isolated from it, and to suggest we can fully substitute this fungus with another species – while receiving all of its exact benefits – is silly.  This article is meant to provide options on how we can receive similar health benefits using a variety of plant and fungal medicines in the event we do not have access to chaga, and ultimately in an effort to protect and preserve the niche that chaga occupies in the wild.

Sound good?  Great!  Let’s proceed…

Triterpenes

Have you spoken to anyone lately about the medicinal actions of chaga?  Mm hm.  And did they happen to mention the word “triterpenes?”  Mm hm.  Thought so.  Speak to anyone about the medicinal actions of chaga, and this is a term you’ll most likely hear.  Triterpenes.  What the heck are those?

The simple answer (chemists, bear with me) is that triterpenes are naturally occurring compounds that provide a wide spectrum of biological activity.  They’re extremely common in nature.  Why should we care?  Well, triterpenes happen to be quite medicinal.

Chaga is notoriously hailed for two of its medicinal compounds: betulin and its derivative, betulinic acid (2, 3).  Betulin is a triterpene, while betulinic acid is a derivative of a triterpene, known as a triterpenoid.  These molecules are concentrated in the outer black portion of the fungus and can be extracted most effectively for human consumption with non-polar solvents (i.e. alcohol).

Betulinic acid has demonstrated anti-bacterial, anti-viral, anti-inflammatory, anti-HIV, anti-malaria, and antioxidant effects in numerous studies (4).  Its precursor, betulin, has been shown to possess anti-tumor and anti-cancer properties (5).

Both compounds, however, are not unique to the chaga fungus.  In fact, we can find betulin and its derivative, betulinic acid, quite easily in nature.

As chaga is essentially a parasite to its host tree (most commonly a birch tree, genus Betula) it’s not hard to imagine that many of its compounds will be derived from the birch tree.  This is what we see with betulin and betulinic acid.  Both compounds are created in the outer bark of birch trees, with betulin found in much higher concentrations than betulinic acid (6).  An additional compound found in the chaga fungus with origins in the outer bark of birch trees is lupeol.  Lupeol, another triterpene (gotta love them), has been shown to possess anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, and anti-microbial properties (7).

Because the birch tree naturally contains many of the medicinal compounds found in chaga, we can utilize this knowledge by using birch bark for medicine, sparing the chaga fungus itself.  All 3 of these compounds – betulin, betulinic acid, and lupeol – are most effectively extracted via non-polar solvents, such as alcohol, due to their chemical structures.  Vinegar (i.e. acetic acid) may also be an effective solvent (8).

yellowbirch2wildfoodism

Bark from the yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis) contains many of the same medicinal compounds that can be found in chaga

Of course, ruthlessly hacking away at birch trees to obtain their bark is no sustainable solution.  Wounded and barkless birch trees, though still harboring plenty of chaga, is not the image I’m envisioning.  All foraging practices would benefit from responsible and conscientious harvesting methods – for example, extracting birch bark from recently felled trees or branches to use as medicine (live trees may harbor more medicine, though recently felled trees will still be effective to a degree).

In addition to its bark, the birch tree also concentrates betulin in its sap (9).  Though not as high in sugar as maple trees, birch trees can successfully be tapped to yield drinkable sap, which can eventually be turned into syrup.

Useful alternatives to chaga may include other species that utilize birch as their host tree.  Birch polypore (Piptoporus betulinus) is a fungus that generally grows on dead birch trees and logs.  A fairly common mushroom, it contains many of the same medicinal compounds as chaga, notably the triterpenes.  For example, birch polypore possesses betulin, betulinic acid, and lupeol, and while its content of betulin is much lower than that of chaga, it contains a significantly greater concentration of lupeol in certain extracts (10).

birchpolyporewildfoodism

Birch polypore (Piptoporus betulinus) is often overlooked by its superstar housemate, Inonotus obliquus

Betulin and its derivatives can additionally be found in other species.  Alder trees (genus Alnus) contain all 3 aforementioned compounds – betulin, betulinic acid, and lupeol (11).  Not surprisingly, Native Americans used alder tree bark to treat various conditions, such as headaches, rheumatic pains, colds, congestion, and anemia (12).

Other sources of betulin (13) include sacred lotus (Nelumbo nucifera), Indian jujube (Ziziphus mauritiana) and the seeds of common jujube (Z. vulgaris var. spinosus).

Betulinic acid is generally found in low concentrations in nature.  However, the rare exception is buckbean (Menyanthes trifoliata) – a bog plant native to the United States that contains a high concentration of this compound.  Betulinic acid can also be found in self-heal (Prunella vulgaris) and rosemary (14, 15).

And to throw out just a few more examples before we wrap up this section, several additional medicinal mushrooms have been reported to contain pharmacologically active triterpenes.  The reishi mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum) is one example among many.  Not only does reishi contain several triterpenes, it has been reported to contain 3 times the total amount of triterpenes as chaga (16).

To summarize:  Triterpenes are responsible for many of chaga’s medicinal effects, though other fungi – notably the reishi mushroom – contain greater numbers of these compounds.  Additionally, if you are specifically seeking betulin or betulinic acid, other plant parts and species can be used.  Examples include birch bark, birch sap, birch polypore, alder bark, buckbean, self-heal, and rosemary.

Polysaccharides

Enough with the triterpenes.  Let’s look at another fraction – the polysaccharides.

In addition to its content of triterpenes (can’t get away from them, sorry!), chaga contains a diverse group of molecules known as polysaccharides.  These molecules act, among other things, as antioxidants (17) and immune system regulators (18).

Obviously, chaga isn’t the only mushroom that contains polysaccharides, as these compounds form the structure of fungal cell walls.  Polysaccharides are ubiquitous in the fungal kingdom.  And in fact, other mushrooms contain the same amount of, if not more, polysaccharide fractions than chaga.

For example, the Indian oyster (Pleurotus pulmonarius) and the golden oyster (P. citrinopileatus) have been shown to contain the same number of polysaccharide fractions as chaga.  What’s more, Leucopaxillus giganteus, maitake (Grifola frondosa), and hemlock reishi (Ganoderma tsugae) all contain more polysaccharide fractions than chaga (19).  These mushrooms have routinely been studied for their medicinal actions, and while I understand that more does not always equal better, it is worth noting that several species outperform chaga in the polysaccharide numbers game.

wildreasons

Hemlock reishi (Ganoderma tsugae), a polypore found on conifers, has been shown to contain more polysaccharide fractions than chaga

However, while its number of polysaccharide fractions may not be its most impressive feature, chaga certainly excels in a particular way.  Beta-glucans belong to particular class of polysaccharides that may provide the most benefit to the immune system, and research has shown that a large percentage of chaga’s polysaccharides are in fact beta-glucans (20).

Other mushrooms that have been shown to contain immuno-regulating polysaccharides include (21):

  • Snow fungus (Tremella fuciformis)
  • Split-gill polypore (Schizophyllum commune)
  • Umbrella polypore (Polyporus umbellatus)
  • Lion’s mane (Hericium erinaceus)
  • Reishi (G. lucidum)
  • Artist’s conk (G. applanatum)
  • Shiitake (Lentinus edodes)
  • Velvet foot (Flammulina velutipes)

To summarize:  Chaga contains structural components known as polysaccharides.  These compounds, of which beta-glucans is one class, display antioxidant and immuno-regulating properties.  Many medicinal mushrooms contain immuno-regulating polysaccharides, including reishi, maitake, lion’s mane, and shiitake.  Polysaccharides from a few of these species may outnumber those found in chaga.

Antioxidants

Both classes of compounds discussed thus far – triterpenes and polysaccharides – demonstrate strong antioxidant activity.  Oxidation is a natural process in the human body that, if left unchecked, can result in conditions such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s disease (just to name a few).  Antioxidants combat the process of oxidation by neutralizing reactive molecules in our bodies known as free radicals.

Triterpenes found within chaga have the ability to scavenge a reactive and potentially damaging molecule known as DPPH.  Polysaccharides within chaga can scavenge DPPH as well, though they also have the ability to scavenge a reactive molecule known as the superoxide radical (triterpenes do this as well, though to a lesser extent).  This potentially destructive molecule has been implicated in numerous diseases, including diabetes and cardiovascular disease (22, 23, 24).

Chaga isn’t the only resource to offer help in this situation.  Within the human body, a built-in mechanism is already in place.  An enzyme known as superoxide dismutase targets and neutralizes the superoxide radical, helping to prevent oxidative damage.  Additionally, other species have been shown to demonstrate similar effects.  For example, reishi (G. lucidum) and the umbrella polypore (P. umbellatus) both possess superoxide radical scavenging ability, and both were shown in one particular study to demonstrate the highest scavenging effects of 8 mushrooms tested (25).

Another study compared the antioxidant and immuno-modulatory activities of aqueous extracts from chaga, cordyceps (Cordyceps militaris), and cat’s claw (Uncaria tomentosa).  Chaga certainly demonstrated strong antioxidant effects in this study, as did cordyceps.  Researchers found, however, that cat’s claw displayed the strongest activity in scavenging both the superoxide radical and DPPH – which, if you will recall, are two highly reactive molecules implicated in oxidative damage.  When tested on mice, cat’s claw was the optimal species to exhibit anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer effects (26).

It’s also worth noting that pure vitamin C, or L-ascorbic acid, was generally just as effective, if not more effective, in displaying antioxidant activity compared to the other three species tested (this was usually seen in higher doses).  Vitamin C is very prevalent in nature, and if you’re interested in learning which wild species contain large amounts of this compound, check out this article (after you’re done reading this one, of course).

To summarize:  Chaga, due to its concentration of triterpenes and polysaccharides (among other compounds), displays strong antioxidant effects.  Chaga is particularly effective against two reactive molecules – DPPH and the superoxide radical.  Other species that demonstrate powerful antioxidant effects include reishi, the umbrella polypore, cordyceps, and cat’s claw.  Vitamin C is also a potent antioxidant with impressive physiological effects.

Anti-diabetes

Several studies have suggested that chaga contains compounds that may be useful in the treatment of diabetes (27, 28, 29, 30).  Many of these compounds have been shown to inhibit alpha-glucosidase – an enzyme that breaks down starch and simple sugars to glucose.  By inhibiting this enzyme, glucose absorption slows down in the body, ultimately reducing the impact of carbohydrates on blood sugar.  Chaga, with its ability to inhibit alpha-glucosidase, is therefore a promising candidate in the treatment of diabetes.

Another highly sought after fungus with similar anti-diabetic activity is the maitake mushroom.  Maitake extracts have been shown to inhibit alpha-glucosidase.  Two of its compounds, oleic acid and linoleic acid, may be responsible for this inhibition.

Stinging nettle leaf extracts have also been shown to display blood sugar-lowering effects in patients with type 2 diabetes.

stingingnettlewildfoodism

You may not like its sting, but you may appreciate its ability to treat diabetes

Several other species possess anti-diabetic properties.  The list is much too vast to include here, though an online search will be sure to offer additional assistance.

To summarize:  Chaga demonstrates anti-diabetic effects, notably through its ability to inhibit the enzyme, alpha-glucosidase.  Similar effects have been seen in the maitake mushroom and stinging nettle.

Now, we have only looked at a snippet of what chaga has been shown to do … both scientifically and anecdotally.  It is no surprise that a fungus so dearly prized by many individuals exerts a vast array of biologically-pertinent effects.  This article has only scratched the surface of what chaga is capable of doing.

For example, we haven’t even discussed the anti-inflammatory, the anti-microbial, nor the anti-viral properties of chaga.  Nor have we talked about other classes of biologically relevant compounds – including the polyphenols, sterols, and melanin – and their documented effects.  While many of these compounds can be found in numerous plants, fungi, and even animals, there are some compounds that are entirely unique to the chaga fungus – ones that have not been discovered in other species.  Inotodiol, an anti-tumor compound found only in chaga, is just one example (31).

Remember, this article is not meant to suggest that substituting another species for chaga can serve as a complete replacement for all its medicinal effects.  Nor is this article’s intention to undermine chaga’s medicinal actions by pointing out that other species may perform better than chaga in certain tests of strength.

Rather, individuals who lack access to chaga, though wishing to experience similar health benefits, may find this information useful.  Heck, even those with seemingly unlimited access to chaga may benefit from this information.

You see, dietary diversity is essential for optimal health.  Our ancestors understood this, as evidenced by the extensive number of plant, animal, and fungal species consumed as part of their traditional diets.  Today, most Americans rely on only a handful of species (i.e. corn, wheat, and soy), and no matter how clean, pure, or organic these few species may be, they cannot constitute an optimal diet without the inclusion of dozens (think hundreds) more species from the natural world.

And so it is with chaga.  As fantastic as its medicine may be, surely our health would benefit from the addition and inclusion of other medicines from the various kingdoms of life.

Not only because our health depends on it, but the health of our planet, too.  We cannot excessively extract one species from the land and expect the rest of the biological world to pay no attention.

And so it is with chaga.

Earth notices, and Earth responds.

Thanks for reading, and congrats for making it to the bottom!  As always… happy foraging!


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Thank you!
Adam Haritan

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5 Mushrooms That Can Heal Wounds

Sparassiscrispawildfoodism

Credit: James Lindsey at Ecology of Commanster

Let’s imagine you’re walking through the forest.  I like birch and hemlock forests, so let’s go there.

You’ve got a field guide in your backpack, a foraging basket, and several freshly-harvested oyster mushrooms to occupy the basket.  As you’re strolling down the path, you fail to notice a low-lying birch root along the ground.  Another step forward and your minimalist shoe catches the root, propelling not only your body into the air, but your prized oysters as well.  Never mind the oysters for now… let’s inspect that nice-looking wound on your knee (thanks, rock).

It’s a small wound … nothing serious.  You wash it, bandage it, and continue your trek through the forest.  At home, calendula ointment and honey take care of the rest.

That seems like a wise strategy … something I would surely do.  In fact, there are several remedies that can help to accelerate the wound-healing process.  Self-heal, plantain, comfrey, vitamin E, aloe vera, and birch bark are all popular ingredients one can find in the first-aid section of most health food retailers.

But I don’t see any mushrooms …

“Mushrooms?” You ask.

“Why yes, mushrooms,” I reply.

You see, while we don’t hear much about it, mushrooms have indeed been shown to facilitate the wound-healing process.  No, it’s not as simple as harvesting a mushroom from the ground and rubbing it onto your skin until the injury heals.  Maybe that works.  Anything’s possible.

It appears to be a bit more complex than that though.  Through various mechanisms, several members of the fungal community have demonstrated wound-healing properties in numerous scientific studies.

Which mushrooms are they, and how can we apply this information should we find ourselves stumbling over forested roots?

I’m glad you asked …

  • Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum)

Also known as lingzhi, the reishi mushroom is highly revered in Chinese medicine.  It is one of the most beautiful mushrooms, donning hues of lacquered red, orange, and yellow, and can be found growing as an annual polypore on hardwoods, especially oaks.

Among reishi’s medicinal effects is its ability to facilitate the wound-healing process.  Several studies corroborate this.  For example, in a study involving wound-inflicted rats, an aqueous, freeze-dried extract of the reishi mushroom enhanced healing activity of the wounds and increased collagen accumulation at the sites of injury (1).  Other animal studies have attributed the wound-healing effects of the reishi mushroom to its polysaccharides and protein fractions, which may offer therapeutic potential, researchers suggest, in the cases of peptic ulcers, injuries to the liver (i.e. surgery), and diabetic wounds (2, 3, 4, 5).

  • Lion’s mane (Hericium erinaceus)

Also known as the pom-pom mushroom, lion’s mane is one of the most delectable mushrooms in the fungal kingdom, resembling crab meat in taste and texture.  Lion’s mane has been well researched for its role in improving cognitive health, producing neuro-regenerative effects in numerous studies (6, 7 8), and additional research suggests that this mushroom accelerates the wound-healing process (9).

In one particular study, rats were experimentally wounded and given varying topical treatments.  Compared to the rats given distilled water topically, the rats whose wounds were dressed with a lion’s mane water-extract healed faster, showed less scar width at wound enclosure, contained fewer macrophages (inflammatory cells) at sites of injury, and had wounds that contained more collagen for the growth of new blood vessels.  Another study found that polysaccharides within the lion’s mane mushroom were responsible for enhanced skin antioxidant enzymes and increased collagen protein levels (10).

Not bad for one of the finest looking mushrooms of the forest.

Aqueous extracts, which are able to concentrate water-soluble polysaccharides, are easy to create simply by simmering the lion’s mane fungus in hot water for about 2 hours.  Strain the decoction, then bottle the remaining liquid.

Of course, the aforementioned studies were performed on rats, and it’s difficult to fully extrapolate their findings to humans.  Therefore, I will let you deduce your own conclusions based on the incredible results I have summarized …

  • Cauliflower mushroom (Sparassis crispa)

From midsummer through autumn, a large, rounded mushroom with numerous folded branches can be found growing near the bases of oak and coniferous trees.  This is the cauliflower mushroom – an edible mushroom with hardly a poisonous lookalike, and one that helps to heal wounds.

In a recent study, the cauliflower mushroom (pictured at the head of this article) was evaluated for its role in exfoliating and replacing the cells that comprise the outermost layer of skin (stratum corneum).  Compared to rats not receiving the mushroom, the rats that were fed dried cauliflower mushroom demonstrated faster skin-renewal time.  Levels of newly synthesized collagen had also increased in the rats fed cauliflower mushroom (11).

In a follow up randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study conducted by the same researchers, human participants were split into two groups:  those receiving 160 mg of dried cauliflower mushroom powder with olive oil, and those receiving placebo.  Compared to the placebo group, the participants orally administered cauliflower mushroom demonstrated improvements in the integrity of the skin barrier.  The researchers attributed these findings to compounds known as beta-glucans, which, in addition to improving skin health, have also been shown to demonstrate a suppressive effect on tumor growth and metastasis (12).

Like reishi, the cauliflower mushroom has also been shown to accelerate wound closure in diabetic rats, which may hold promise in the treatment of diabetes in humans.  Again, beta-glucans may play a starring role in the wound-healing process, as they were shown in yet another study to directly increase the synthesis of collagen (13).

  • White button mushroom, Portobello, Crimini (Agaricus bisporus)

It’s a mind-blowing day when one discovers that all three mushrooms – white button mushroom, portobello, and crimini – are all cultivars of the same species, Agaricus bisporus.

And I hope that today is another mind-blowing day when you discover that this versatile mushroom has been researched for its wound-healing properties.

Studies have shown that Agaricus bisporus:

  • possesses beneficial effects on skin during regeneration after injury (14).
  • helps to control the scarring process (15).
  • facilitates the wound-healing processes involved in ocular (eye) related injuries (16).

Agaricus bisporus, though widely available in the produce department, has yet to find its way into the first-aid section of most grocery stores.  Unfortunately, ingesting white button mushrooms … or portobellos … or crimini mushrooms … may not fully heal an injury overnight.  However, the limited evidence that is currently available does indeed warrant additional research which (hopefully) may lead to future clinical applications.

  • Agaricus blazei

Medicinal mushroom enthusiasts may recognize this species through its role in supporting the immune system.  Research also suggests that Agaricus blazei may promote wound healing, particularly in the instances of burns.

In a study published in the International Journal of Biological Macromolecules, rats who were experimentally burned and fed carbohydrates from the Agaricus blazei mushroom recovered faster than rats who received no treatment (17).  The composition of the isolated carbohydrates were found to contain the compounds glucose, mannose, and arabinose.  All three compounds are soluble in water, thus facilitating the easy production of personal Agaricus blazei medicine.  And while the aforementioned study was performed on rats, perhaps future research will include humans as participants and uncover similar results.

Now, back to our opening scenario …

You cut your knee on a rock, wash the wound, bandage it, and continue your trek through the forest.  At home, a mushroom ointment – containing reishi, lion’s mane, cauliflower mushroom, Agaricus bisporus, and Agaricus blazei – takes care of the rest.  And in a short while, the wound is fully healed …

… well, the last part may tap into wishful thinking, I admit.  Fungi haven’t made their way into mainstream first-aid products just yet (although a select few companies do currently sell mushroom salves).  With all the research available on this subject, however, perhaps it won’t be too long before we see their incorporation into popular wound-healing products.

What do you think?  Would you consider applying a mushroom extract to a wound of yours?  The research does seem promising.  I’d love to hear from you!

Thanks for reading, and as always … happy foraging!


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Thank you!
Adam Haritan

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Winter Mushroom Hunting – 8 Species To Collect For Food And Medicine

latefalloystersnowwildfoodismI’ll admit:  My enthusiasm for mushroom hunting wanes ever so slightly in the winter months.  Of course, the anticipation to locate, identify, and harvest select members of the fungal community never perishes, though its intensity remains somewhat tempered compared to the escalating excitement I experience during the late spring, summer, and autumn forays.

You see, winters in western Pennsylvania are cold.  Last year, a record was set when the temperature dropped to -9°F (okay, I suppose it could be worse, though this is indeed cold for Pennsylvania!).  Compound this variable with the seasonal ice, snow, and numerous sunless days, and it’s not hard to see why many foragers in the Northeastern United States hang up their mushroom baskets for the season.  It’s not that we, as human mycophiles, cannot tolerate these wintery conditions (polar plunging is a favorite pastime of mine); rather, the fungi themselves – at least the ones considered prized edibles – generally require slightly different circumstances in order to produce fruiting bodies.

Fair enough.  Nature knows best, and who could ever argue with that?

But wait!  “Fewer” does not imply “none.” The hillsides, fields, woodlands, trees, fallen logs, and stumps may not necessarily be teeming with an over-abundance of salient mushroom fruiting bodies in the winter months, yet mushrooms can certainly still be found.  In fact, quite a few can be harvested, not just for identification, but for the table as well.

Below, I describe 8 species that can be found here in western Pennsylvania (and generally the Northeastern United States) during the winter months.  Of course, many more exist, and if you are interested in locating and identifying these, I’d love for you to join me on a winter plant and mushroom ID hike (see LearnYourLand for more information).

For now though, here are 8 reasons why you should dust that ol’ mushroom basket off and throw on an extra layer (or two).

Update: I recently filmed a winter mushroom hunting video, featuring several fungi not described in this post.  Check it out in addition to reading the rest of the article!

Now onto the list:

  • Late fall oyster (Panellus serotinus)

panellusserotinuswildfoodism

The late fall oyster mushroom (Panellus serotinus) is a cold-weather fungus traditionally eaten in Japan, where it is known as Mukitake.  It has a wide distribution in the United States, and is very common in Pennsylvania.  It’s a tough mushroom, one that requires slow, long cooking for best texture and flavor.  Still, to get wild nutrition and medicine into your body, the late fall oyster mushroom can easily satisfy that need.

Speaking of medicine, research has shown that Panellus serotinus possesses anti-tumor and immuno-modulating activities, like many medicinal mushrooms (1).  This is primarily due to its concentration of beta-glucans, which can easily be extracted through prolonged hot water decoctions (teas, soups).  The late fall oyster mushroom, as shown in animal studies, also displays protection against non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and dyslipidemia (2).

Not bad for a log-decomposer who doesn’t ask for much.

Look for this mushroom on dead hardwood logs and branches in the autumn and early winter months.  Colors vary – I’ve seen blends of grey, orange, yellow, and green.  Look-alikes include the mock oyster (Phyllotopsis nidulans), though its cap is mostly orange, and its smell is rather unpleasant.  Panellus serotinus also resembles the classic oyster mushroom (Pleurotus ostreatus), though the latter rarely contains shades of yellow/orange, can be much bigger, and is a choice edible anyway.

To learn more, check out this video featuring identification and medicinal benefits:

  • Oyster mushroom (Pleurotus ostreatus)

oystermushroombigschenleylearnyourland

Oh hey, oyster mushroom.  We were just talking about you (see 2 paragraphs up).

This popular mushroom is fairly common, and while it didn’t quite make my immediate list of 5 easy-to-identify edible mushrooms, it would most likely be ranked #6 in ease of identification.  Characteristics of the oyster mushroom generally include a smooth white (sometimes gray) cap, white gills, white to pale-lilac spore print, broad growth in clusters, and a substrate that usually includes hardwood logs (rarely conifers) and stumps.

Oysters are choice edible mushrooms.  They can be buggy though, and if this is true for your harvest, soak them in a bit of saltwater first before cooking (not usually a problem in the winter months).  While they are included on this winter mushroom identification list, oysters can be found year round on stumps, logs, or trees.  Always remember your spot, as they tend to reappear in the same place year after year.

To learn more about oyster mushrooms, check out this video in which I discuss identification, medicinal benefits, and more.

  • Brick caps (Hypholoma sublateritium)

hypholomalateritium

Brick caps are edible mushrooms that improve in taste as the year progresses.  They can usually be found in the autumn months through winter, though they become less bitter generally after the first frost.

This is not necessarily a beginner’s mushroom.  Brick caps resemble sulfur tufts (Hypholoma fasciculare), poisonous mushrooms that grow within the same season (I found sulfur tufts not too far from where this picture was taken).

Both species grow in clusters on decaying wood and produce purple-brown spore prints, though brick caps have reddish caps (paler at the margins) with grayish-purplish brown gills, and sulfur tufts usually have greenish yellow caps with greenish yellow gills (becoming darker with age).

Beyond edibility, brick caps are quite medicinal.  A compound known as clavaric acid has been isolated from this species (3).  Clavaric acid has been shown to act as an effective FPTase inhibitor, which in non-medical speak translates to “a compound that may impede cancer proliferation.”  Research suggests that these inhibitors, of which clavaric acid is one, may be effective particularly against colorectal, pancreatic, and lung cancers (4).

If you’d like to learn more about brick caps, check out this recent video I created while hiking in the woods one day.  Another winter species (not described in this article) is also discussed in the video, so you may want to hit the play button to find out what it is…

  • Velvet foot (Flammulina velutipes)

flamulinavelutipes2017

There is no doubt that this species enjoys cold weather temperatures, as velvet foot can usually be found from October through early spring.  A cultivated version is popular in East Asian cooking, though its appearance differs somewhat from the velvet foot found in the wild.  Regardless, both are edible.

Velvet foot (also known as enoki, enokitake, golden needle) can be recognized by its slimy orangish-brown cap, white gills, velvety-brown stalk, and growth in clusters on deciduous logs (usually elm).  It produces a white spore print, which helps to distinguish this species from a toxic look-alike, the deadly Galerina (Galerina marginata).  The deadly Galerina produces a rusty brown spore print and dons a ring on its non-velvety stem.  The seasons for both Flammulina velutipes and Galerina marginata overlap somewhat, though with an understanding of these key differences, discernment should be easy.

A choice edible, velvet foot is also medicinal.  Studies have shown that certain biologically active compounds derived from this mushroom (fiber and polysaccharides) help to reduce blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol (5).  Velvet foot also possesses immunomodulatory compounds, which have been shown in studies to inhibit lung cancer cell migration and proliferation (6).

  • Chaga (Inonotus obliquus)

chagaANFwildfoodism

Because I have yet to create the “Top 5 Sclerotia To Harvest In Winter” article, chaga will have to be included here.  It’s true, the chaga fungus pictured above is not necessarily a “mushroom” in the truest sense of the word, but rather a sclerotium – a compacted, hardened mass of mycelia.

Additionally, and like the oyster mushroom, chaga is not strictly a winter mushroom.  Rather, it can be found year round, though it has been my experience that it is easier to find during the winter months for two reasons:  1) vegetation is minimal (leaves, tall grasses, shrubs, forbs), and 2) the dark colors of this fungus contrast nicely against the winter snow.  Both of these reasons make spotting chaga, especially from a distance, much easier in winter.

Be aware that if you plan to harvest chaga in colder temperatures (below freezing), the fungus may be frozen to the tree.  If using a metal tool (for example, an ax), be careful not to strike the tree, and only harvest the actual chaga fungus itself.  While I have included it on this list of winter mushrooms, I actually find it a bit easier to harvest during the warmer temperatures, as I can use my bare hands to aid in removal from the tree.  Therefore any unnecessary damage to the host tree is kept at a minimum.

Chaga, a medicinal fungus used for centuries in traditional Siberian medicine, typically inhabits the circumpolar boreal forests of the world.  While it grows almost exclusively on birch trees, it has also been spotted on elm, ash, beech, and ironwood trees.

For detailed information on how to locate and identify this incredible fungus, please check out a recent piece I created on this very subject, entitled Is This Chaga? A Key For Identifying This Remarkable Fungus (that’s a clickable link, by the way).

And for a recipe using the chaga fungus as a base for an upgraded hot chocolate, please check out this additional clickable link: Bulletproof Hot Chaga Chocolate Recipe

  • Turkey tail (Trametes versicolor)

turkeytaillogwildfoodism

One particular fungus really begins to shine this time of year when hardly a mushroom wishes to poke its fruiting body from the earth.  I am referring to the aptly named turkey tail fungus.

Turkey tail is not difficult to locate, as it’s one of the most ubiquitous fungi found in our woodlands.  Look around at the logs, stumps, and fallen branches in your neck of the woods – and you may eventually discover turkey tail. 

Other species within the Trametes genus resemble turkey tail, though the latter can be distinguished by its multicolored concentric zones and whitish pores on the underside.  Look-alike fungi usually lack the brilliant colors of turkey tail, or they may be hairier (Trametes hirsuta).  Additionally, look-alikes may lack pore surfaces (genus Stereum), or their pores may be colored. 

Turkey tail is not necessarily edible (too tough), though it sure is medicinal.  One particular study found that turkey tail can improve immune system status in immuno-compromised breast cancer patients following conventional cancer treatment (7).  These findings are extremely important, as the study was not conducted on animals, nor in petri dishes, but rather on living human subjects.

A more recent human trial (again – not in animals, nor in petri dishes) found that a polysaccharide extracted from turkey tail mycelia displayed prebiotic effects in the human microbiome (stimulating the growth and maintenance of beneficial intestinal bacteria).  In the same study, participants who were instead fed Amoxicillin (an antibiotic) demonstrated detrimental shifts towards more pathogenic bacteria in their microbiome, with effects lasting up to 42 days after their final antibiotic dose (8).

Turkey tail is a pleasure to hunt in the late autumn and winter months – its cap providing stunning visuals amongst the senescing vegetation – though like oyster mushrooms and chaga, this fungus can be found year-round.

To learn more about the turkey tail fungus, check out this video:

  • Birch polypore (Piptoporus betulinus)

birchpolyporewildfoodism

This is one of the most common fungi found in birch forests, and like a few other mushrooms described in this post, it can be found year-round.  Now, some sources report that it is best to harvest this fungus in the summer months into early fall, and I suspect this is because the growing season for the birch polypore generally includes these seasons.  Hence, young specimens (which are preferred for collection) are prolific during this time.  I have included the birch polypore with this list of winter mushrooms because, at least here in Pennsylvania, young fruiting bodies can indeed be found at least into January (the above photo was taken in late-December, 2013).

The birch polypore is fairly easy to recognize.  It typically has a tan cap with inrolled margins, a whitish pore surface, and a somewhat tough (though not rock-hard) texture.  Growth is almost exclusive on living or dead paper and yellow birch trees.

A multipurpose fungus, its utility extends far beyond food and medicine into the survival realms of fire making and blood coagulation.  Medicinally, birch polypore has been shown to be an important species with anticancer, antimicrobial, antiviral, and antibacterial properties.

To receive the concentrated power within the birch polypore, you can use freshly picked young specimens, thinly sliced and boiled, as food.  Teas and tinctures can be made as well.  This fungus contains betulinic acid (9) – the same compound in chaga, derived from the birch tree, that confers several health benefits (anti-tumor, anti-cancer).

It has been my experience that the birch polypore is much more common than chaga (more frequent sightings, more fruiting bodies).  It seems that medicinal diversity is essential for great health, and cycling between chaga and birch polypore (instead of relying solely on chaga) can benefit not only the health of the boreal forests, but our personal health as well.

To learn more about the birch polypore, check out this video:

  • Wood ear (Auricularia auricula)

woodear1

While hunting mushrooms in the early summer days, you may discover this species.  While hunting mushrooms in autumn and early winter, you may also discover this species.  The wood ear, also known as the jelly ear, is an edible mushroom found throughout the year, usually growing in clusters on logs, branches, and stumps of both coniferous and deciduous trees.  Characteristics of this mushroom include its cup-shaped, ear-like appearance, its reddish-brown color, rubbery to gelatinous texture, and a surface that usually includes minutely fine hairs.

The wood ear is indeed edible and, like many mushrooms, it also possesses numerous medicinal properties.  Studies have shown that the wood ear contains anti-viral, antioxidant, anti-tumor, and immuno-supportive compounds (10, 11, 12, 13).  Additionally, a water soluble polysaccharide from this mushroom has been shown to reduce triglyceride, LDL-cholesterol, and total cholesterol levels in animal studies (14).

Note:  The Northeastern North American version of wood ear may be Auricularia angiospermarum.

  • Blewit (Clitocybe nuda, Lepista nuda)

blewits

Okay, I couldn’t stop at 8.  Can you blame me though?  Consider this one a bonus, and instead of explaining this beautiful mushroom through text alone, I thought I’d introduce you to the blewit mushroom through video.  If you’re interested in learning its key identifying characteristics, hit the play button!

How about that?

In case you’re just joining the party, we’re finishing up a discussion on 9 mushroom species we can harvest during the winter months (at least in the Northeastern United States) for food and medicine.

Now, this list isn’t exclusive.  Surely, there are many more for which I haven’t provided detailed analyses, including:

  • Bitter oyster (Panellus stipticus), a bioluminescent mushroom (meaning, it glows in the dark)
  • Amber jelly roll (Exidia recisa), a winter fungus typically found on willow twigs
  • Artist’s conk (Ganoderma applanatum), a perennial polypore
  • Red-belted polypore (Fomitopsis pinicola), a perennial polypore
  • Tinder fungus (Fomes fomentarius), a perennial polypore

…and so on.

During your next winter excursion, see what kinds of cold-loving fungi can be found.  The number may be greater than you think.

Yes, I know … I opened up this article by expressing a slight ebbing to the excitement I feel for winter mushroom hunting.  Personally though, it is a rewarding activity, for even in the midst of “the great biological nap” (aka winter), a harvest – heck, even a sighting! – of just two or three fruiting mushroom bodies can seem like I’ve hit the jackpot.

Yes, this is how I feel even after finding a single mushroom during a winter walk.  Am I alone on this one?  Let me know, I’d love to hear from you!

Thanks for reading, and as always … happy foraging!


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Tippler’s Bane, And Other Mushrooms That Don’t Go Down So Well With Alcohol

Coprinopsisatramentariawildfoodism

Credit: Taylor F. Lockwood, http://www.mykoweb.com

Remember all those college parties with friends, loud music, beer, and meals upon meals full of mushrooms?  Yeah, me neither.  Perhaps I was never invited to the mycological fraternity parties, or perhaps all the mushroom dishes were always eaten before my arrival.  Whatever the reason, it’s probably a good thing that two of these variables – alcohol and mushrooms – weren’t included in the same setting.

Now, it’s not that all edible mushrooms should never be consumed with alcohol.  Many are absolutely harmless with or without the accompanying beer, wine, or liquor.  There are, however, a few mushrooms that have been shown, both through personal accounts and in the scientific literature, to cause rather unpleasant symptoms only when consumed with alcohol.

Interesting, isn’t it?  Mushrooms that contain toxins, that are generally only toxic when combined with another toxin.

That’s a lot to wrap our heads around, so let’s see what’s going on here with the select mushrooms that made the list.

Common inky cap (Coprinopsis atramentaria)

With an additional common name like Tippler’s Bane, a description hardly needs to be given.  Aptly named, this mushroom (pictured above) is the fungus most often associated with the negative symptoms experienced when consuming mushrooms with alcohol.   The tippler’s bane, it turns out, contains a naturally occurring compound that inhibits the body’s ability to metabolize alcohol.

You see, ethanol (alcohol) is essentially a toxin (the dose makes the poison, wouldn’t ya say?) that needs to be metabolized properly in the body in order to be eliminated.  The most common pathway looks like this:

  1. Alcohol is converted into acetaldehyde by an enzyme known as alcohol dehydrogenase.
  2. Acetaldehyde is further broken down into acetate by an enzyme known as acetaldehyde dehydrogenase.
  3. Acetic acid is ultimately broken down into carbon dioxide and water in the citric acid cycle.

*Note:  this is an oversimplified description of alcohol metabolism.  Numerous additional enzymes and steps are involved, though for this article’s sake, only these three main steps are mentioned.  Chemists, accept my apology.

The inky cap exerts its effects during the second step by way of a compound known as coprine.  This non-protein amino acid, when ingested, is converted into its metabolite, 1-aminocyclopropanol (ACP) –  a potent inhibitor of acetaldehyde dehydrogenase (1).

If we look back to the second step, we can already predict the problem that the combined effect of tippler’s bane and alcohol would create inside the body:  a buildup of acetaldehyde (2).  What’s the deal with too much acetaldehyde?  Well, for starters, this compound is a potent carcinogen in the upper digestive tract of humans, associated with both esophageal and gastric cancers (3).  It’s also the main carcinogen found in tobacco smoke.

Now, this isn’t to say that consumption of inky cap mushrooms with alcohol on a single occasion will significantly increase one’s risk of cancer (I suppose it is a possibility, though no studies to my knowledge have addressed this hypothesis).  Unpleasant symptoms in the acute setting, however, may let you know your acetaldehyde levels are escalating.

*Note:  not everyone will experience negative symptoms, though caution should still be taken.

When consuming inky cap mushrooms with alcohol, symptoms include tachycardia (rapid heart rate), palpitations, nausea, flushing of the face, tingling of extremities, and headaches (4).  These symptoms are very similar to Antabuse (disulfiram), a prescription drug given to individuals experiencing chronic alcoholism in an attempt to discourage consumption of alcohol.  Antabuse works in a similar manner to coprine, inhibiting acetaldehyde dehydrogenase and forcing a buildup of the carcinogenic compound, acetaldehyde (…you’d think there would be a better way).

There are a few important pieces of information to keep in mind.  The severity of symptoms depends on several factors, including the amount of mushrooms consumed, the amount of alcohol consumed, and the duration between the two.  The symptoms may appear within 15 minutes to 2 hours, and generally occur between 3 – 6 hours after consuming the combination.  Recovery is usually spontaneous.

Symptoms usually manifest when alcohol is ingested after mushroom consumption, though in sensitive individuals the reverse can also be true.  Because sensitivity can persist, recommendations include abstaining from alcohol for 2 – 3 days after mushroom ingestion.

Coprine, the causal agent in the buildup of acetaldehyde, is reported to be present somewhere between 160 – 360 milligrams per kilogram of fresh fruiting body material.  It is not destroyed by cooking.  The level has been found to be more concentrated in older mushrooms, with half as much occurring in younger specimens (1).  Remember, though, that the Antabuse-like effects are not experienced when inky caps are consumed without alcohol.  Some authors report that inky caps should never be eaten, while others consider it a good, meaty edible.

The common inky cap is found quite readily in grass and wood debris throughout North America.  A defining feature of its genus includes the deliquescence of the gills and cap – the ability to auto-digest and turn into an inky black goo (hence the name “inky cap”).  I see no reason to forgo this edible mushroom when approaching it with the usual foraging precautions (be positive of your identification, consume only a small amount the first time, understand its contraindications, etc.).

The tippler’s bane, therefore, is indeed edible … with caution.

Shaggy mane (Coprinus comatus)

Coprinuscomatuswildfoodism

Credit: Nino Barbieri

The shaggy mane is closely related to the tippler’s bane and, not surprisingly, possesses gills and a cap that deliquesces (auto-digests into an inky black goo).  These mushrooms are fairly common in grass and wood chips, and are rather easy to identify.

Shaggy manes may present unpleasant symptoms when consumed with alcohol, though these symptoms are not as common as those presented by the tippler’s bane.  Coprine has been reported to be present in much lower levels, at around 10 – 15 milligrams per kilogram of fresh material in the shaggy mane, compared to 160 – 360 mg/kg in the tippler’s bane (5).

Symptoms of the combined shaggy mane and alcohol ingestion in susceptible individuals generally include gastric distress.  Antabuse-like effects (those seen with the tippler’s bane) are usually not experienced with the shaggy mane.  It’s also worth noting that David Arora, in his book Mushrooms Demystified, reports cooking shaggy manes in wine several times without experiencing any unpleasant side effects (6).

Freckled dapperling (Lepiota aspera)

Lepiotaasperawildfoodism

Known in many field guides as Lepiota acutesquamosa, this mushroom is commonly found in eastern and southwestern North America on the ground in leaf litter from late summer through autumn.

A study from 2011 reported on the effects of L. aspera consumption in combination with alcohol in five patients (7).  All had mistaken L. aspera mushrooms for Amanita rubescens or Macrolepiota procera.  Before consumption, the mushrooms were sautéed, and presented no problems until alcohol was ingested.  Within a few minutes, symptoms developed, including facial flushing, tachycardia, headaches, and shortness of breath.  The effects persisted for a few hours.  Recovery was spontaneous, though symptoms could be reactivated by consuming alcohol up to 48 hours later.  While these symptoms were very similar to those presented by the tippler’s bane, the toxin in L. aspera has not been identified.

Lepiota aspera is listed in field guides as edible, though not recommended for consumption.  Aside from the ill effects observed when consuming this mushroom with alcohol, L. aspera can be mistaken for deadly Amanita mushrooms, in addition to other poisonous mushrooms within the Lepiota genus.

Fat-footed clitocybe (Clitocybe clavipes)

Clitocybeclavipeswildfoodism

Credit: James Lindsey at Ecology of Commanster

This mushroom is widely distributed in North America, and can be found under conifers and hardwoods in the autumn and winter months.  Like Lepiota aspera, C. clavipes has been shown to cause ill effects when consumed prior to alcohol consumption, though the exact toxin has not been identified.

In the scientific literature, it is reported that on three separate occasions, ingesting alcohol 7 hours after consuming four to six C. clavipes fruiting bodies produced Antabuse-like effects (8).  These included a feeling of warmth in the face, puffiness in the hands, and headaches.  Symptoms could be re-provoked the next day after subsequent alcohol ingestion, though these effects were usually milder than the previous day’s.

Clitocybe clavipes is listed in the field guides as an edible mushroom, though it is not recommended for consumption as it resembles several toxic species.

Lurid bolete (Boletus luridus)

Boletusluriduswildfoodism

Credit: Tomas Čekanavičius

The lurid bolete is a blue-staining European bolete species.  Three cases of mild intoxication have been reported when combining the lurid bolete with alcohol, though unlike the tippler’s bane, the main toxin has not been identified (9).

Morels (Morchella spp.)

morelsinwildfoodism

Is there any mushroom more desirable than the morel?  They’re delicious, nutritious, and medicinal, and while they are considered some of the safest edible mushrooms to identify, there have been reports that eating cooked morels while imbibing alcohol can produce gastrointestinal distress in some individuals (10).

Few, if any, studies exist regarding this subject, and the exact mechanism of intoxication has not been identified.  Still, a bit of precaution wouldn’t hurt before consuming morels (if you happen to be a susceptible individual who wishes to part with your morels, I can give them a good home … email me if this is the case:  adamharitan@gmail.com).

Scaly Pholiota (Pholiota squarrosa)

pholiotasquarrosawildfoodism

The scaly Pholiota is commonly found in clusters on logs, stumps, and at the bases of trees.  Unlike the other mushrooms described in this article, the scaly Pholiota is considered a poisonous mushroom (though some older field guides list it as edible with caution).  When combined with alcohol, this reportedly poisonous mushroom may become even more toxic.  At least three cases of intoxication have been reported when combining the scaly Pholiota with alcohol, with symptoms including diarrhea, vomiting, and shock (10).

My advice?  Keep the scaly Pholiota off the dinner plate, with or without alcohol.

Oyster mushroom (Pleurotus ostreatus)

oysterwildfoodism

The oyster mushroom is a choice edible that can be found year round growing on wood throughout North America.  According to the North American Mycological Association, the oyster mushroom may produce unpleasant side effects in some individuals when consumed with alcohol (11).  I have not been able to find any additional research on this subject.

Honey mushroom (Armillaria mellea)

honeymushroomwildfoodism

Honey mushrooms are part of a species complex (Armillaria mellea complex), incorporating at least a dozen distinct species.  According to the North American Mycological Association, honey mushrooms may produce unpleasant side effects in some individuals when consumed with alcohol (11).  The exact mechanism has not been identified.

King bolete (Boletus edulis)

boletuseduliswildfoodism

Credit: Hans Hillewaert

A prized edible mushroom, the king bolete has been shown (in very rare instances) to cause ill effects when consumed with alcohol (11, 12).  Any mechanism has not been identified.

Chicken mushroom (Laetiporus sulphureus)

chickenofthewoodswildfoodism2

Wait a second, what’s going on here?  Another prized edible mushroom best to be avoided while engaging in adult beverage consumption?  Well, before you start throwing puffballs at me, consider that most of the information on this subject is anecdotal, and no mechanism has been identified.  The chicken mushroom, combined with alcohol ingestion, seems only to be an issue in rare instances (10).

Phew.  I’ll stop there before I create any more teetotalers.

Looking back, we have at least ten mushrooms that may produce undesirable side effects when consumed with alcohol.  Now, I understand that an infinite amount of exceptions exist.  Not everyone will react the same way;  some may be hit harder than others, and some won’t feel a thing.  This information is simply provided to help you make responsible and conscious decisions when foraging and consuming wild mushrooms.

And I’ll end this post the way I end most of my mushroom posts:  always be 100% sure of a mushroom’s identity before ingesting it in any form.  There are numerous field guides, online forums, mycological clubs, and experts available to help you in your mushrooming quest.  Use them all, they’re great!

Thanks for reading, and as always … happy foraging!

Additional references:
1. Gry, J. and Andersson, C. (2014). Mushrooms traded as food Vol II Sec. 2. Copenhagen: Nordic Council Of Ministers.
6. Arora, D. (1986). Mushrooms demystified. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press.
10. Ammirati, J. (1985). Poisonous mushrooms of the northern United States and Canada. Minneapolis:  University of Minnesota Press.


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Thank you!
Adam Haritan

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signinformwildfoodism

Is This Chaga? A Key For Identifying This Remarkable Fungus

isthischagannowildfoodismThis is a fairly common question I receive, usually accompanied by a picture similar to the one shown here.  It’s a good question indeed, and it’s one that I would like to explore beyond a simple “Yes” or “No” answer (spoiler alert:  the answer is “No”).

In my early mushrooming days, it was the chaga fungus that had me most excited (don’t get me wrong, I’m still bedazzled).  I remember exploring the hardwood forests near Pittsburgh (not exactly an ideal habitat for chaga) in search of this medicinal marvel, and discovering what I thought were potential candidates.  I’d perceive one far in the distance and immediately scurry to the spot.  Standing under the darkened mass, hoping my search yielded success, I’d wonder, “Is this chaga?”

It wasn’t.

Rather, the abnormal growth that had myself (and countless others, judging by requests on identification forums) fooled was a tree burl resembling the one pictured above.  Through the years, my mushrooming skills have improved to the point where no confusion remains on this matter.  I have encountered chaga dozens of times during my hikes through the forests of Pennsylvania, I have harvested it on numerous occasions, and I use the fungus as part of my primary medicinal strategy.

Still, there are many individuals who may find it confusing to discern between the two, and I understand.  They kinda-sorta look like one another.

To answer the original question proposed in this article’s title, I’d like to further explore the differences, both superficially and functionally, between tree burls and the chaga mushroom.

Tree burl

treeburlwildfoodism

Sorry, not chaga.

A burl is an outward growth on a tree usually attributed to environmental stress, whether it be physical trauma, an insect, fungus, or even pollutants.  Burls can be made up of numerous buds that would typically develop into new shoots, but instead they remain dormant.

Whatever their true cause, burls are not inherently detrimental to the tree.  Rather, as trees mature, so do their burls, which develop beautiful patterns and colors that are prized by furniture makers and wood turners.

Unfortunately, burl poaching is a common practice especially in the old growth redwood forests, where burls are illegally harvested and sold for large profits.  Harvesting burls from living trees can leave the trees more susceptible to infection and disease, though in many cases the tress are able to heal themselves.

It’s important to understand that a burl is not a fungus, while chaga is.  A burl is simply an outgrowth of the tree, meaning the tree’s bark extends to include the burl.  The two are not necessarily separate entities.

While the colors may vary depending on the species, burls are usually the same color, if not a bit darker, than the color of its tree.  Contrast this to chaga, which usually forms as a blackened crust (on its outside), and appears as a distinct entity on its host tree.

While burls can form on numerous tree species, I encounter them most frequently on oak trees (Quercus spp.) in Western Pennsylvania.

Chaga (Inonotus obliquus)

chagaANFwildfoodism

Yes, this is chaga.

Upon first glance, it’s hard to imagine that this fungus would serve any purpose in benefiting human health.  Centuries of traditional use and current research, however, suppress that skepticism, if only by a little.

Chaga is a sterile fungal body usually found on birch trees, though also rarely found on elm, beech, and hornbeam.  Its outer material is usually black, brittle, and cracked, while its interior is golden-orange and cork-like.

chaga2hr2015

Note the black, cracked outer appearance and the orange interior (visible at its point of attachment to the tree).

Chaga forms over several years within the tree and eventually erupts through the bark, pushing itself out from within.  Thus, it is a distinct species from its host tree, and appears as such.

chagahr2015

Notice how distinct chaga looks from its host tree (a yellow birch, Betula alleghaniensis).

To distinguish chaga from a tree burl, ask yourself these questions:

  • Is this the right ecosystem for chaga?  Chaga usually grows in the circumpolar boreal deciduous forests.
  • On which tree is it growing?  Chaga grows almost exclusively on birch, though as stated previously, it has been found rarely on elm, beech, and hornbeam.
  • What color is it?  The outer surface of chaga is cracked, brittle, and relatively black (if not rather dark).  A tree burl’s color resembles its host tree, perhaps a bit darker.
  • What color is the interior?  I don’t recommend haphazardly damaging formations on trees, though sometimes the interior color can be seen naturally without any effort, or simply by removing a small piece by hand.  The interior of chaga is an unmistakable golden-orange color (see image below).
  • Does the specimen appear to be a separate species, distinct from its host tree?  If so, it may be chaga.  If the specimen appears to be an extension of the tree, bark and all, you may be looking at a burl.
  • Is the growth phallic in nature, or rounded?  Chaga usually grows as a phallic, cone-like extension.  Tree burls are generally rounded outgrowths.  These are shape generalizations for both, as appearances can vary widely, though the majority of chaga fungi and tree burls I’ve seen fit these characteristics.
chagawildfoodism2

Note the orange interior amadou of chaga — corky to the touch when fresh.

Having run through these questions, you can feel more confident in your identification of the chaga fungus.  If you still harbor some confusion, feel free to send me a photograph and description of your unknown specimen, and I will be happy to assist in identification.

And oh yes, one final note:  chaga fungi and tree burls are remarkable sights to view in nature, though both are prone to over-harvesting.  Medicine can be made from chaga, and intricate woodwork can be produced from burls.  If harvesting either, do so with the utmost intention while inflicting the least amount of harm.  It makes the world a better place for everyone!

Thanks for reading, and as always … happy foraging!


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5 Easy-To-Identify Edible Mushrooms For The Beginning Mushroom Hunter

chickenofthewoodswildfoodism2In the world of foraging, few organisms conjure up more fear and mystery than mushrooms.  Tell someone you harvest wild berries, and he thinks to himself what a great hobby.  Tell another person you hunt wild mushrooms, and she fears for your life.

“Aren’t you scared?”

“What if it’s poisonous?”

“I could never pick wild mushrooms, they’re much too dangerous.”

The fungal kingdom, it seems, is a bit of an enigma.  In 1991, a paper was published suggesting that, although 1.5 million fungi were thought to have inhabited the earth, only about 70,000, or 4.7%, of fungal organisms were identified at that time (1).  Today, it is estimated that there are 5.1 million fungal species in existence, and the number of identified species is still quite small in comparison.

It’s true, out of 5.1 million fungal species, some of them are quite toxic.  Destroying Angel, Deadly Galerina, and Death Cap aren’t just fancy names, though they may or may not be hit singles from late 80’s heavy metal bands…

Destroyingangelwildfoodism

Amatoxin, forever popularized by their hit single, “Destroying Angel”

It’s easy to focus all our attention on the dangers of wild mushroom hunting, and of course the risks are valid concerns.  One must absolutely know what he or she has in hand before even thinking about pulling out the butter, salt, and frying pan.

There is another side to wild mushroom hunting, however.  The medicinal side.  The healing side.  The delicious side.

Obviously, several mushrooms are edible.  A quick trip to the grocery store confirms this.  Many individuals are interested in going one step further by foraging edible mushrooms, yet have no idea where to start.  It can all appear quite daunting at first, especially after realizing you’re dealing with 5.1 million potential species (okay, this is an exaggeration … much of this large number does not pertain to mushrooms in their fruiting body stages, but rather to microscopic fungi, such as yeasts and molds).

So where do we start?

Well, why don’t we begin with the most easily identifiable wild edible mushrooms?  You know, the ones that when you see them you think, “Yep, that’s exactly it!”

In this post, I have put together a list of 5 easy-to-identify edible mushrooms.  These mushrooms are fairly conspicuous, they’re delicious, and they require a hefty stretch of the imagination to misidentify as toxic look-alikes.

Note:  I live in western Pennsylvania.  This list, therefore, is based on my experiences with the organisms in this area.

  • Lion’s Mane (Hericium erinaceus)

lionsmanelearnyourland2016

Not all mushrooms look like the portobellos and the shiitakes found in the grocery store.  Lion’s mane, for one, certainly does not.  It is one of the most unique-looking mushrooms, with its unbranched body of icicle-like spines and soft white tissue.  Accordingly, lion’s mane is a great mushroom for beginning mushroom hunters.

Very few mushrooms resemble lion’s mane, and the ones that do are taxonomically placed in the same genus (Hericium).  These include bear’s head (H. abietis), coral tooth (H. coralloides), and bear’s head tooth (H. americanum), among others.  What distinguishes lion’s mane from its relatives are its long spines (1-4 cm long) and unbranched fruiting body.  All species of Hericium are considered to be edible.

Also known as the pom-pom mushroom, lion’s mane is one of the most delectable mushrooms in the fungal kingdom, resembling crab meat in taste and texture.  Additionally, lion’s mane has been well researched for its role in improving cognitive health, producing neuro-regenerative effects in numerous studies (2, 3, 4).

Look for lion’s mane on the wounds of living hardwood trees, such as oaks and maples, as well as on recently felled trees.  It can be found in the summer months through autumn.

  • Chicken of the woods (Laetiporus sulphureus)

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While lion’s mane is one of the easiest mushrooms to identify, its presence is a bit more rare than some of the other choice edibles.  Take chicken of the woods, for example.  Once you develop a search image for this fungus, you’ll start seeing it everywhere (okay, maybe not on Mount Kilimanjaro, but you get my point).

Chicken of the woods (chicken mushroom, sulphur shelf) grows in clusters on both standing and downed trees, emerging as knob-like growths and soon developing into numerous shelves.  The color is an unmistakable yellowish-orange, and the pore surface is yellow (for L. sulphureus, and white for the closely related L. cincinnatus … both edible).  Always make sure the underside has pores.  If it has gills, you won’t be having chicken for dinner.

The chicken mushroom resembles … get this … chicken in taste and texture, and is best collected when young.  As it ages, the chicken mushroom becomes too tough to eat, though the outer edges can still be salvaged and used in dishes.  Like all wild mushrooms, it requires cooking before consumption.

Beyond edibility, the chicken mushroom is medicinal as well.  Research has shown that an extract from this mushroom possesses antimicrobial activity against the pathogen, Aspergillus flavus (5). Chicken mushroom is also a great source of antioxidants, including quercetin, kaempferol, caffeic acid, and chlorogenic acid (6), and it contains lanostanoids – molecules that have the ability to inhibit cancerous growths (7). What more could you ask for from a humble saprophyte?

Look for the chicken mushroom in the summer months through autumn.  To learn more about this fantastic fungus, I encourage you to check out a video I created on its identification, look-alikes, medicinal benefits, and more.

  • Maitake (Grifola frondosa)

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The maitake mushroom (sheep’s head, hen-of-the-woods) is a choice edible and medicinal that always demands a good hunt.  While it’s easy to identify and widely distributed, the maitake mushroom can be somewhat tricky to locate compared to the showy chicken mushroom, as the former blends in well with the autumnal foliage.  Maitake contains overlapping gray to brown caps attached to a single base.  Individual specimens can be rather large and weigh several pounds.  Like other polypores (mushroom fruiting bodies with pores or tubes on the underside), maitake has no gills.

While not difficult to identify, maitake may resemble other non-toxic polypores.  The black staining polypore (Meripilus sumstinei) bruises black and can be found growing on buried wood.  Young specimens are edible, though they become too tough to consume with age.  The umbrella polypore (Polyporus umbellatus) is another edible look-alike which contains white to grayish caps, though this mushroom is multi-branched and not as common.

Maitake compliments a variety of dishes, lending a hearty flavor and tender texture.  In addition to its use as a food, maitake has been researched extensively for its medicinal properties, specifically in the areas of cancer and diabetes.

Maitake, with few look-alikes, is certainly one of the safest mushrooms to harvest.  Look for this gem under oak trees (and make sure you circle the tree … you may be pleasantly surprised to find a second or third), late summer through autumn.

To learn more about the maitake mushroom, I encourage you to check out this video I created on its identification, health benefits, and more!

  • Old man of the woods (Strobilomyces floccopus)

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Some mushroom enthusiasts may question my decision to include old man of the woods on this list, though my reasoning, which applies to the others included here, is this: it’s easy to identify, it’s edible, and it has few, if any, toxic look-alikes.

Old man of the woods is very unique.  Like most boletes (fungi in the Boletaceae family), it contains a spongy surface of pores under the cap rather than gills.  These pores are usually whitish or gray and become dark with age.  Its wooly cap is grayish-black with velvety darkened warts, and when cut in half, this mushroom will usually stain red.

Old man of the woods, unlike most polypores, grows on the ground among hardwoods and conifers.  Therefore, if you see a mushroom that fits this description (wooly grayish-black cap with warts, whitish pores that become dark, slowly staining red when cut, growing on the ground), it’s most likely old man of the woods.

Now, there is a close look-alike.  S. confusus resembles S. floccopus, though the former contains spiny-erected warts that are firmer to the touch than the wooly S. floccopus.  Regardless, they’re both edible (cooked, of course).  Some field guides consider old man of the woods unworthy of the dinner table.  I am a bit more optimistic, and enjoy consuming them regularly when presented with the opportunity.

Though one might think that this mushroom would blend in very well with the forest floor, I find them rather easy to locate.  Look for old man of the woods in the summer months.

*Note: Strobilomyces floccopus may be strictly a European species. The North American version is, at least macroscopically, identical in appearance and can be used in the same way.

And lastly, here’s a short little video on Old Man Of The Woods to help you properly identify this mushroom.

  • Yellow morels (Morchella esculenta group)

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Morel mushrooms need no introduction.  But heck, I’m going to give them one anyway!

Few mushrooms in the wild resemble morels, and the ones that do can be easily distinguished based on key defining features.  The yellow morel, for instance, retains a hollow and pitted head.  Likewise, a cross-section of the stalk typically reveals a hollow interior.  Additionally, the cap is attached to the stalk.

These features, once learned, will help you clearly separate morels from their look-alikes, including false morels, thimble morels, and stinkhorns.  False morels of the genus Gyromitra tend to retain a darker shade of red and have a wrinkled, brain-like, or convoluted cap.  These mushrooms are known to be toxic (to a degree).  Thimble morels (Verpa spp.) have free, “skirt-like” sides, and stinkhorns (Phallus spp.) have a sack or vulva at the base and are generally quite foul-smelling.

Yellow morels exhibit a wide variety of positive health effects.  For example, they are a fairly good source of vitamin D and antioxidants, they have been shown in the scientific literature to display protection against drug side effects, and they’ve been researched for their role in supporting immune system health (all referenced in the link above).

Look for morels in old apple orchards or in burned areas.  They’re also associated with tulip poplar, ash, beech, maple, and dead or dying elm trees.  In the eastern United States, they can be found in the spring months through early summer.

For more information on finding and identifying morel mushrooms, check out another article on this blog: How To Find And Identify Morel Mushrooms

If I had to include additional easy-to-identify mushrooms, I would extend this list to oyster mushrooms and chanterelles.  Heck, I would even throw in some puffballs and shaggy manes.  The ones that made the final cut, however, are those that I have found to be the easiest to identify.  I hardly need to think twice before bringing these delectable fungi home.

The mushrooms that earned their ranking are also the ones that, when taught to other beginning mushroom hunters, are identified with confidence and ease.  If you are just starting on the road to becoming an ardent mushroom hunter, use this list as a guide for helping you along your journey.  Remember, however, that the descriptions here are not complete and are only meant to briefly discern the listed mushrooms from their potential look-alikes.

A good habit (actually, an extremely wise habit) is to cross-reference your mushrooms with other resources, and always be absolutely positive with your identification before ingesting wild mushrooms in any form.  Your safest bet is to have an expert identify, or confirm the identification of, your specimens.  A quick online search will yield local mycologists as well as online forums to assist in the identification process.

There, that eases the fear of wild mushroom hunting just a little bit, wouldn’t ya say?

Thanks for reading, and as always … happy foraging!


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Adam Haritan

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3 New Studies Demonstrate The Anti-Tumor Effects Of 3 Medicinal Mushrooms

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Photograph by Jose Ramon Pato

It’s a rare day when I don’t consume a medicinal mushroom (or two or three) in some form or another.  Lately, I’ve been ingesting them in the form of dual-extracted tinctures (first in alcohol, then in hot water, and finally combined), but I also eat them, create hot water decoctions, and will consume supplemental capsules as well.

Why are mushrooms a staple of my health protocol?  After spending years reviewing the scientific literature, in addition to studying the traditional uses amongst different cultures, I’d be doing my body a great disservice by ignoring the information I’ve hunted and gathered.

Medicinal mushrooms, it turns out, have been shown to possess anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, anti-viral, and immunomodulatory properties.  I discipline myself to stay up-to-date with the current research, and I’ve recently discovered three separate studies that analyzed the anti-tumor effects of three different medicinal mushrooms.

Let’s take a look at them:

Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum)
Also known as lingzhi, reishi mushroom is highly revered in Chinese medicine.  It is one of the most beautiful mushrooms, donning hues of lacquered red, orange, and yellow, and can be found growing as an annual polypore on hardwoods, especially oaks.

A new study looked at the effects of certain compounds derived from reishi mushroom on tumor inhibition in mice with Lewis lung carcinoma (1).  The compounds administered to the mice were beta-glucans, which are polysaccharides found in fungal cell walls.  The mice were divided into 4 groups: a control group (no treatment), radiation only group, beta-glucan only group, and a beta-glucan/radiation combination treatment group.

The results were rather remarkable.  Compared to the the control and radiation-only treatment groups, the groups administered reishi beta-glucans had significant decreases in the volume of  primary tumors, as well as less hair loss and less severe wounds.  They also displayed less incidence of metastasis, which is the spread of cancer from one part of the body to another, and demonstrated significantly longer survival time compared to the groups not receiving reishi mushroom beta-glucans.

Overall, the most inhibitory effects were seen in the mice that received both reishi beta-glucans and radiation therapy, suggesting that reishi mushroom could potentially be a very important complementary treatment to the way conventional medicine currently manages cancer.

Cordyceps (Cordyceps militaris)
Cordyceps has to be one of the most fascinating fungi.  Its mycelium colonizes the pupa or larva of a butterfly or moth, eventually expelling forth the reproductive structure (mushroom) directly from the insect.  Past research has elucidated its aphrodisiac, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant properties, and new research has discovered that Cordyceps may suppress tumor growth of human malignant melanoma cells.

Published in the International Journal of Oncology, this new study found that an extract of Cordyceps militaris suppressed tumor growth by inducing programmed cellular death on human malignant melanoma cells, a process known as apoptosis (2).  Additionally, the extract displayed anti-angiogenic properties.  Angiogenesis is the process whereby new blood vessels are formed from the preexisting vascular system.  While this is a normal part of the wound healing process, angiogenesis is also involved in tumor progression from the benign to malignant state, and inhibition of this process – for example, through Cordyceps administration – could potentially be a viable way to mitigate cancer progression.

Antrodia salmonea
Antrodia salmonea
is a medicinal mushroom used in traditional Taiwanese medicine to treat diarrhea, hypertension, and liver cancer.   While there is not a substantial body of evidence documenting the medicinal properties of Antrodia salmonea, a few studies have previously analyzed the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of this fungus.

New research published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology studied the anti-tumor activity of Antrodia salmonea on human promyelocytic leukemia cells (3).  The researchers discovered that administration of the mushroom in vitro and in vivo reduced tumor growth in the cells by inducing apoptosis (programmed cellular death).  In addition to testing their hypothesis on human cells, the researchers performed additional experiments on mice, and found that Antrodia salmonea was effective in delaying tumor incidence by reducing the size of the tumor.  This is the first study to confirm the anti-tumor activity of Antrodia salmonea against human promyelocytic leukemia, a cancer of the white blood cells.

Reishi, Cordyceps militaris, and Antrodia salmonea are certainly not the only fungi that possess anti-tumor properties, as many more members of the fungal kingdom certainly do.  True, the aforementioned studies were not performed on humans, but the results are still promising and warrant further experimentation.

Isn’t it surprising, though, that with all the great research performed around the world, and with documented traditional applications amongst several cultures, mushrooms still have not been accepted as part of conventional Western medical treatment?


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Thank you!
Adam Haritan

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