Learn fun and interesting facts about mushrooms! They’re fascinating organisms with a long and unique history.
Kids Love Mushrooms
It’s interesting how different generations feel about mushrooms. When I was a kid, the Amaranthus family would often assemble on Sundays at my Italy-born grandpa’s house for dinner. He would make a big meal for his five children, their spouses, and fifteen or so grandchildren, including me. The main dish would invariably have wild mushrooms included. I vividly remember my mother and aunts, who were born and raised in America, painstakingly pulling the mushrooms off the plates of the grandchildren. They feared my grandpa’s wild mushrooms would poison us.
I think the fear of mushrooms is primarily projected by the attitudes of adults. My own five kids and eight grandkids have grown up around mushrooms. In our house, there are always some fresh edible, medicinal, or “curious” specimens in the fridge. Medicinal tinctures and teas are in a pot on the stovetop after a morning brew. Dried and frozen fungi are stacked in the pantry and freezer. I have a microscope in my home office, and the kids and grandkids look at specimens and spores when they come to visit. So basically, there is little fear of mushrooms in our family. We raised our kids to hunt mushrooms, and we still go out with the kids and grandkids in the spring and fall. Not all kids love to eat mushrooms, but they all love to get out into the forests and fields with their bags and field gear. They get dirty and find treasures. They see butterflies, wildflowers, and wildlife, and they hear stories of the mushroom hunting past. There is something about hunting and gathering that resonates deeply into the human soul.
Murder by Amanita
Mushrooms were considered a delicacy for many Roman elites at that time. In fact, one Amanita species was highly prized by a host of Roman emperors and is called Caesar’s amanita (Amanita caesarea). It is widely distributed in the Western United States and Southern Europe. The Caesar’s amanita should be avoided unless you really know the Amanita group because several similar-looking Amanita species are deadly poisonous. Some of the Amanitas you spot in the woods of the Western United States may be one of the Amanitas added to Emperor Claudius’s plate the night he died—the destroying angel (Amanita ocreata) or the death cap (Amanita phalloides).
Amanita ocreata Destroying angel
The death cap packs a mighty poisonous punch. One medium-sized mushroom can kill three to four people. Today, the death cap and the destroying angel cause most mushroom poisoning deaths. About forty people a year suffer from severe mushroom poisoning in the United States, with approximately three deaths per year. Once ingested, the death cap and destroying angel cause diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, and with time, liver and kidney failure.
Asian Americans are the most frequently poisoned by the death cap because it can be mistaken for a popular and edible Asian mushroom called the paddy straw mushroom (Volvariella volvacea). The amatoxin in the death cap and destroying angel is not affected by cooking, so sautéing, baking or broiling does nothing to prevent the impact of ingestion. It is interesting to note that the death cap is not native to North America. It most likely arrived on trees imported from Europe in the early twentieth century. Today it is widespread.
I’ve gathered and eaten the edible Caesar’s amanita. I was careful to identify all the diagnostic characteristics of each mushroom that was cooked. The first time I found some, I was with seven of my mushroom hunting friends, and we were hunting mushrooms up the North Umpqua River outside of Roseburg, Oregon. The cabin we were staying at was near a campground. The large, orange-red caps lining the margin of the campground were easy to spot: free gills, a volva, and a smooth, dark-orange to orange-red cap lacking warts. I thought, “My first Caesar’s amanita!” But did I have the guts to cook them and eat them with friends over the steelhead salmon a friend had caught for dinner? The Caesar’s amanitas had an orange-red cap (darker orange red toward the center of the cap), the cap surface was smooth, no scales, cap margins were conspicuously striated, and free gills were pale golden yellow. Even with the careful observations and decades of hunting and eating mushrooms, I was, frankly, a bit nervous about eating the Caesar’s amanita. The Caesar’s amanita was delicious with the fish. But would I do it again?
What Makes Mushrooms Medicinal?
Medicinal mushrooms contain polysaccharides, polyphenols, and antioxidants that are scarce in other foods. Many have high concentrations of vitamins, amino acids, nutrients, and micronutrients. These beneficial characteristics can help the body reduce inflammation and cholesterol, as well as combat tumors, viruses, and bacteria. If you want to delve into the current research on mushrooms, check out the mushroomreferences.com website. It contains hundreds of abstracts and citations of peer-reviewed scientific studies related to the medicinal qualities of specific mushrooms. The website lists studies by mushrooms species, and it is an effective way to keep up with the latest scientific research for chaga, lion’s mane, hen of the woods, Psilocybe, reishi, turkey tail, and many more.
Some mushrooms, like the hen of the woods, are medicinally important and also delicious to eat.
In this section, I will cover some of the important compounds found in medicinal mushrooms and what they can do for human health. Then I will guide you on how to prepare them in teas and tinctures. It is important to know how these compounds are released from mushrooms. Some are these compounds are soluble and released in hot water (for example, in preparation of teas) while others are only soluble in alcohol (for example, when making tinctures). Still others are released partially in water but more thoroughly extracted with alcohol, and in these cases, tinctures can be made that extract both water-soluble and alcohol-soluble compounds. There are also some details on the specific compounds, but if you are not interested in such details, you can move on to the “Where Do I Find Medicinal Mushrooms?” section.
Vitamins B and D, Minerals, and Amino Acids
Ergothioneine and Glutathione
Mushrooms contain a very high concentration of ergothioneine and glutathione. When these antioxidants are present together, they work to protect the body from the physiological stress that causes aging. Penn State researchers found that the antioxidants ergothioneine and glutathione may also help prevent Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Ergothioneine and glutathione can be extracted by both water and alcohol.
Triterpenoids are a class of chemicals officially classified as being composed of three terpene units (terpenes are aromatic compounds). Many medicinal mushrooms have high concentrations of triterpenoids. Triterpenoids are used for medicinal purposes in many Asian countries for anti-inflammatory, analgesic, antiviral, and antitumoral applications. Triterpenoids are a complex of many beneficial compounds, such as sterols, betulin, and ergosterol. Triterpenoids are best extracted with alcohol.
Where Do I Find Medicinal Mushrooms?
Chaga fruiting on a birch tree in a neighbor’s yard.
Artist’s conk reishi growing in a mature forest.
Mushrooms at a growers’ market in Oregon that provides fresh and dried medicinal and edible mushrooms year-round.
Making Teas and Tinctures
If you can’t find medicinal mushrooms in the wild, you can always buy them at health food stores or online. They come in bulk powder, capsules, and tinctures. Many growers’ markets and grocery stores now carry healthy, fresh, and delicious shiitake and oyster mushrooms. In addition, hen of the woods and lion’s mane are wonderful culinary delights and are getting easier to find in gourmet and supermarkets as well. As Hippocrates, the famous Greek physician, said in 440 BC, “Let food be thy medicine and let thy medicine be food.”
Fresh or dried medicinal mushrooms can be used as teas or tinctures.
Preparing tinctures with medicinal mushrooms chaga and reishi.
My First Mushroom Hunt: Porcini
My first mushroom hunt was in the fall of 1964. I was eight years old. I got to spend considerable time with my Grandpa Ernesto in East Los Angeles. Grandpa was an Italian immigrant from the little town of Caluso in the Piedmont area of Northern Italy. Like a lot of Italians of his generation, he was a lover of mushrooms. He had spent many hours collecting mushrooms in the “old country.” In fact, he would tell me how he worked for a family that had trees that produced truffles. I would imagine trees filled with chocolate truffles but later learned they were Italian white truffles. Ernesto would haul soil from trees that were known producers of white truffles and transplant the soil near trees that were not producing truffles in hopes the soil transfer would induce fruiting.
Grandpa’s friends in his Los Angeles neighborhood were also Italian immigrants, and they spent time playing bocci, smoking cigars, and talking how good the food was back in Italy. One day I heard them talking about going to hunt “little pigs.” I was disgusted at the thought they were really going to hunt baby pigs. Turns out, “little pigs”—or porcini (Boletus edulis) in Italian—literally means “piglets.” It is a term that was first used by the ancient Romans to describe porcini.
That autumn, the porcini were “popping” in the San Bernardino mountain area of Southern California, and it was time to go on the hunt. As Ernesto’s grandson, I was welcome to come. My grandpa dressed in his finest clothing for the hunt. He donned his dress coat, fedora hat with feather, and his polished Italian shoes. The car pulled up bright and early with three of my grandpa’s Italian friends dressed in their “finest” for the hunt. They looked like they were going to a wedding or a funeral, which was an indication of how important this event was in their lives.
The windy road and the cigar smoke were nauseating, and I was happy for each stop to get out of the old car and breathe fresh air and explore the woods. Every stop, I found a few tiny brown mushrooms of little interest. But the “guys” were really encouraging me to find porcini with every step. Early afternoon, with my grandpa’s help, I stumbled across a large bump cracking the soil surface. He handed me his forked metal rod he also used to pull weeds in the garden. I popped the porcini out of the ground, and it lay on its side. I could see a plump, white stem and a big, reddish-brown cap. It seemed huge to me. To see the joy in my grandfather eyes and the merriment of his friends was a memory I will never forget. Four old Italian men, in the mountains of America, celebrating a young boy’s coming-of-age discovery. They made me feel like I had won the lottery. I was on my first treasure hunt in the forest!
When we got home, Grandpa let me slice up the porcini in thin steaks. I had never used his big, sharp knife before, and he showed me how not to cut off my fingers. I dipped each porcini slice in egg and bread crumbs, and Grandpa fried them in olive oil. I can’t say it was my favorite-tasting meal at eight years old, but the joy of eating something that I had found in the woods was unforgettable. Grandpa devoured his slices. I had brought home dinner! I remember Grandpa gave me a big bowl of spumoni ice cream after dinner. I felt like a “king.”
With Fry, Thrive, or Die, you’ll learn more about the fascinating world of mushrooms from interesting facts to the most impressive stories; you’ll be thrilled with this book.