Found a lovely, if somewhat dried out, hemlock varnish shelf fungi, big in Chinese medicine, meandering around Frances Slocum State Park yesterday, a lovely, lovely day.
Took this guy home — hard as a rock — and placed it on a bookshelf next to a hoof fungus and other odds and ends I’ve picked up. Just like a kid who has never grown up which, in fact, is what I am.
For 7,000 years, mushrooms have been used in traditional Chinese medicines. One mushroom in particular, Ganoderma lucidum (known as Ling Chih in China and Reishi in Japan), has been used extensively to treat a variety of conditions from insomnia and arthritis to hepatitis and cancer. A related species, Ganoderma tsugae, is believed to hold medicinal properties as well.
What they look like
Both G. lucidum and G. tsugae belong to a large group of fungi called polypores. Distinguishing this group are the tubes on the underside of the fruiting body, in which spores are produced. Each tube ends in a tiny “mouth” called a pore, and a fruiting body includes many hundreds or thousands of pores that discharge countless brown spores. Polypores are a diverse group and are also known by several common names such as shelf fungi, bracket fungi and conks.
Ganoderma tsugae has a distinct, shiny appearance and is often called hemlock varnish shelf for obvious reasons. The upper surface is a dark reddish-brown and so shiny that it looks varnished. Shaped like a giant, furrowed kidney bean or fan, the cap can grow from 5-30 cm wide. Usually one stalked fruiting body is found growing from a single attachment to the host tree, however sometimes two can grow from one base, as pictured. The undersurface is tan to white in color and has the appearance of suede leather (in our photo, the green stuff is a mold growing on the spent pore surface–the specimen’s a little past its prime). A hand lens reveals the fine pores. The stalk when present is usually attached laterally and is 2.5-15 cm long, 1-4 cm thick and also reddish brown and varnished.
Where they grow
Ganoderma lucidum and G. tsugae have a very similar appearance. One of the simplest ways to tell them apart in the field is by noting the species of tree to which they are attached. As the name implies, hemlock varnish shelf, G. tsugae, prefers to grow on hemlock, spruce and pine. Ganoderma lucidum prefers hardwood deciduous trees such as maple and oak. This can be a problem for foresters, as these fungi will rot valuable trees. Fortunately for those who seek to gather large quantities of these fungi for medicinal purposes, G. lucidum can be cultivated. A Japanese man, Shigaeki Mori, has figured out a way to grow them in plum tree sawdust. His efforts have lowered the cost and made them more available to people who wish to benefit from the fungus’ healing properties.
Finding information on the medicinal use of G. lucidum is quite easy–internet sites abound. This student recommends Medicinal Mushrooms, An Exploration of Tradition, Healing & Culture, by Christopher Hobbs. Because they are closely related, G. tsugae is thought to have similar medicinal value. Numerous studies have looked at the hemlock varnish shelf for its antioxidant properties, its ability to heal skin wounds, and its potential use in therapy for cervical cancer.
Research continues, but many Chinese already use a preparation of G. lucidum on a daily basis to promote good health. Reishi has been officially listed as a treatment for cancer in Japan. The medicinal properties of Reishi are gaining popularity in the United States. Ganoderma products are widely available in health food stores, drug stores and from Chinese herb dealers on the internet.