Back to Nature: Plying a Mountaintop for Fungal Currency
Jun 06, 2016 05:29PM
By Melanie Heisinger
Fresh reishi in June sunlight.
photographs by Bill Rozday
A flood of evening light burst through the high evergreen forest as the clouds drifting among the tree trunks fled away. A hiking couple stood over an army surplus laundry sack lying at trailside. Footsteps cracked through the forest, and the young lady looked up.
“Reishi mushrooms,” I said. Sensing that I had unnerved her, I pulled out the flat shelf of a reishi mushroom, dew-white beneath and fawn-brown on top. “Asians use them as a stomach cancer cure,” I shared. “They inhibit tumors. Google it.” She said she certainly would.
As they resumed their hike, she wished me happy mushroom foraging, still bemused by the woodsman emerging from the dead hemlocks. My great foraging opportunity arises every two years—the reishi maximum fruiting cycle—and extends until the gray trunks at last rot away. The rotting of the trunks would likely not signal the absolute passing of these refreshing woods.
The decline of hemlock forests today is an aesthetic and ecological disaster, but the tree demonstrates resistance as a species to wooly adelgid (Adelges tsugae) and will probably escape the fate of the unfortunate American chestnut, victim of the last great blight in the Eastern forests. Hemlock-green color graced the lower levels of these woods.
“The wooly adelgid originates in Japan but presents no challenge to forest health there due to built-in ecosystem checks,” notes Dr. Houping Liu, forest entomologist with the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
In Pennsylvania, where adelgids prey on innocent hemlocks unable to mount natural defenses, only a small percentage of trees retain their vitality; but their resistance, which may be a relic from the distant past when Asia and America were a single continent, offers assurance to background our anti-adelgid efforts, which include both chemical and natural measures.
Chronologically concurrent with the spread of wooly adelgid in the late 20th century came the spread of reishi within the organic health community. I knew it in the 1970s simply as “beefsteak mushroom,” and it took globalization to confer social esteem upon it. Thousands of years ago, however, Chinese foragers did as I do, penetrating deep forests on hunts for “red reishi,” the most potent of a family of mushrooms credited with miraculous healing powers. Asia seemed far from the Appalachians; but in geologic time, when physically joined with our continent, it shared our flora. It was yet growing on hemlocks thousands of miles to the east as I spoke with my hiking friends.
The Medicinal Angle
Today, the Japanese government officially recognizes reishi (Ganoderma tsugae) as medicine; while in China, doctors prescribe it so widely that an application has been filed for its designation as a new anti-cancer drug. Countless scientific studies in these countries bear out its beneficial effects, so an East-West cultural gulf more so than this evidence limits reishi acceptance here; recently, the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, in Manhattan, overcame this prejudice by suggesting reishi use as an adjunct to chemotherapy.
The miraculous is by definition complex. Reishi ameliorates cancers from prostate through lung through gastric and appears elsewhere on the wellness spectrum as an antioxidant and asthma medicine. We continue to probe its polysaccharides and tripertenes.
Reishi, or hemlock varnish shelf, accompanies barren hemlock spectres up mountain streams to their high country headwaters, its shining cola-red stems pushing forth from roots, trunks, logs and stumps. The highest quality specimens often attach to fallen trunks spanning the musical waters or lining their banks, or on summits moistened by mist. “Pickers” stalk the forest from June through August. My Asian buyer friend reports that pickers migrate to higher altitudes as the season progresses in order to gather reishi undamaged by insects in warmer locations.
He examines sacks of reishi and differentiates the contents as AA, A, B and C according to size, care in handling and lack of insect damage. C grade averages 10 mushrooms per dried pound, B perhaps 5; a single AA-grade fungus may weigh 1 dried pound. Pickers dry the product by turning it over alternately on back and belly for three days and then carrying on the drying at a well-ventilated site indoors, where the fungus breathes a distinctive aroma that they associate with $500 per well-handled box.
I remembered an Asian couple the previous year hiking this path seeking a waterfall and showing me the vacation photo they took of red reishi covering a hemlock. As we walked, pointing out fungus shelves, they assured me that it was “good for the stomach.” This crazy reishi hunter would figure in their distantly told travel tales as well.
Along the path back, I saw a patch of red bee balm and followed the mint scent of crushed leaves beaten down by cell phone photographers, taking advantage of the increasingly scarce colors in these woods—red hemlock roots and red Russula mushrooms alike vanishing amid the adelgid deforestation. Sack slung over my shoulder, I realized how Asia took away from the Appalachians and Asia gave back in the circular way of all things.
Bill Rozday writes often about the environmental fusion of East-West culture.
If You Forage:
Your opportunity to Forage for Reishi is Saturday, June 25th, when Bill Rozday will lead a two-hour hike, starting at 10:00 a.m., at Pine Grove Furnace State Park. Meet at the Fuller Lake parking lot at the information/maps kiosk.
For more information, contact Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sell Your Reishi
According to Rozday, for those looking to market their reishi, the leading buyer in the U.S. is regional: TNA Wild Ginseng company in Bethlehem. A second company, MycoBoutique, in Montreal, also handles shipments—dried—from across the border. MycoBoutique is unique in that it conducts mushroom foraging clinics.
Susquehanna Life magazine has not tested the medicinal benefits of reishi and accepts no responsibility for the outcome of foraging for or ingesting them.