Opening note: I want to clarify something before I get started, I simply want to point out that there are several different names for Artist conk and I will be using many of them interchangeably throughout this series. When I reference Ancient Reishi, Ancient Ling zhi, Ganoderma applanatum, or Artist conk I am referring to the same species. Additionally I will be discussing the use of this mushroom in reference to a wild harvested medicine throughout this article. I must advise double checking any wild harvested mushrooms with someone who either is well versed and experienced in mycology or a mycologist prior to ingesting anything made with wild fungus.
The world of fungi is a fascinating and relatively new realm of human exploration. Even with the past 5000+ years of traditional use around the world, we seem to have barely begun to scratch the surface of what the kingdom of fungi seems to have to contribute. To be honest, I feel that much of what the world is today is due to the intervention of fungi (but that is a story for another time). One of the most prominent Medicinal fungi in use today is Ganoderma lucidum, known in China as Ling zhi, and Japan as Reishi, we in the west generally refer to it as Reishi, Red Reishi, or Red Ganoderma, Ganoderma lucidum or even just Ganoderma.
The name Ganoderma, like most all scientific names is a description of the organism itself, with Gano meaning shiny or brilliant and derma in reference to skin. In regard to Ganoderma lucidum this can be translated to “shiny skin shiny” as lucidum is in reference to illumination, glimmering brilliance, or shiny stuff. My topic for discussion in this article, Artist conk (Ganoderma applanatum) is a close cousin to Ganoderma lucidum and a lesser used or even known medicinal fungi found all around the world. Its scientific name Ganoderma applanatum (Ancient ling zhi in china, and Ancient Reishi in Japan) might translate to something like “Flattened shiny skin” as applanatum loosely means flattened.
I would like to point out that there are several different species of Ganoderma (approximately 80) ranging from red, yellow, black, white and so on. While all of them have similar medicinal capacities to degrees, they are relatively different and it may be advantageous to gain a bit of understanding about their idiosyncrasies to more accurately applying them as medicines. So what makes Ganoderma applanatum “ancient” over the other species. Well there are two predominating thoughts as to where this came from. The first is the length of time it has been used in Asian culture versus other species of Reishi, predating the use of Red Reishi. On the other hand it is believed that it is derived from the life span and perceived ancient wisdom this fungi holds, since fruiting bodies can live and continue to live and grow for upwards of 50 years! Regardless of the reason for the name Ancient Reishi, I feel it is aptly applied to this wise old watcher and guardian of the forest.
I began looking into the Ancient Reishi (also known as Artist conk in western cultures) after a year and a half long struggle with my own well-being, to which the native wild Ancient Reishi played what I believe to be a crucial role in my recovery. My experience was unique with this organism, as unlike the herbs I have become accustomed to using over the past several years, I began using Artist conk without much if any preconceived ideas of its medicinal capacity. I knew what it looked like, how to ID it, but never took the time to research it before using it, beyond knowing it was a member of the Reishi family. This gave me an unbiased experience, and allowed me to compare what I denoted within myself to the research that I later began to explore. Before I go into that however I feel a bit of the ecological and physiological elements need to be explored first.
This mushroom has a strong preference to hard wood trees (beech, oak, maple, and occasionally birch, among others). Its prevalence is most common on dead trees but can occasionally be found on living trees. My most common finds are on sickly or dead beech trees, however some of my healthiest finds have been on dead oak, birch and maple. The size of the fruiting body seems to be somewhat dependent on the size of the tree and general health of the forest (go figure…). The upper portion is hard and crusted with a whitish coloring becoming a rust brown during the summer as the fruiting body begins to release its spores. The mushroom is flattened and can protrude outward far from its host (my largest find has been nearly 15” in depth, but they have been known to generate larger fruit) and presents no stem, abutting the host tree directly. The underside is a deep white when growing new tissue, which generally occurs from July-September/October (depending on how the seasons are progressing and the region you live in). The underside bruises a light rust brown when touched and presents a microscopically small pore structure. When bisected the fruit has several layers of tissue; on the underside there is one porous layer per year of growth, each layer is approximately 1/4” in height and a rust brown color similar to its spores, just above that is a felted layer which is generally a similar color to the pores, and finally above those two buffered by the felted tissue below, is the hard upper whitish crust, which can become a rust brown as it is stained by settling spores.
Ecologically speaking Ganoderma applanatum is a white rot fungus of crucial importance for decomposition of wood material to clean and nourish the soil within the forests. It has a strong preference to the lignans that make up some of the structural components of the tree, leaving the cellulose predominantly alone. This is what marks this fungus as producing a white rot, as the lignans produce the brown color, where as the cellulose is more of a white by nature. This is also perhaps where it gets its inner coloration.
Some of the medicinal components may also present a remediation quality on the environments it grows in, especially in regards to infectious bacteria or viruses that may be present within the native animals and plants, or general ecology. Most animals do not consume Artist conk, humans and gorillas are some of the most common, along with the even more common Forked fungus beetles. In fact nearly the entire life cycle of these insects revolves around the Ganoderma species. So consider this, the beetles consume the mushroom and becomes covered in spores in the process, then move on and then become eaten by birds, snakes or other animals, the animals gain a small bit of the medicine from spores settled on the beetle (extracellular constituents mostly), and the components digested and assimilated by the beetle. Additionally, As the fungus grows in a habitat it modulates the presence of micro-organisms within its surrounding environment through secretions produces by the mycelium (thread like body within the host or substrate, which makes up the actual living organism (the fruit we recognize as a mushroom is the reproductive organ..)) in order to create a more comfortable atmosphere for itself and eliminate or reduce competition.
Another ecological consideration that should be made is that fungi are excellent at drawing up polyphenols, other phenolic compounds, a slew of phytochemicals, petrochemicals, heavy metals, and other potentially undesirable components from the environment they live in. “You are what you eat” goes for more than just people.. This is very important for not only cleaning up the ecosystem and maintaining a healthy balance, but also important for the forager who is seeking this valuable medicinal conk. Strong consideration should be made about the location one chooses to forage, especially in regards to fungi as they have been shown to be excellent at breaking down and consuming petroleum and petrochemicals, waste run off, and in general, cleaning up various waste within their surrounding environment. Not all of these compounds are bad per say, in fact some compounds such as polyphenols and other phytochemicals can present therapeutic qualities. Still, caution and careful forethought are advisable.
One last thought to put some consideration into before I move on is that since the fungus is so well adapted to taking up components found withing the growth medium it is found on, this may also presents a slight spectrum for potential alternative constituents to be present as an additional benefit (like the previously mentioned polyphenols). For instance can Artist conk draw betulinic acid from a birch tree? What types of components might it draw from an oak or maple? These are questions that I have yet to gain a clear or complete answer to, however I feel hopeful about the possibilities. If found to be true this line of thinking could not only change the way we consider our growing and harvesting practices (selecting specific conks from select species of tree) but also potentially reduce the occurrence of over harvesting of less ambitious species such as Chaga (to which birch polypore may be a good alternative to) which is very slow to grow, reproduce and seldom regenerates from extensive damage.
I would like to close this part on Ancient Reishi by touching on the sustainability topic. I have heard from many individuals that with most mushrooms you can harvest all if not most all of the fruiting bodies you find, because “the living organism is in the substrate, and it will just grow another fruit…”. While this is to a degree true, and I, for a time believed this statement, I have had the opportunity to learn the hard fact that this rational is flawed. When I first started learning about Artist conk, I was using it for my own treatment. I would go to a particular location and harvest some, bringing it home and processing it for my own regular use. Over the coarse of a few months the particular location I had been going to (easily 200+ acres of forest) was stripped clean of mature Artist conk! I had no idea what I was doing and in my ignorance served a serious blow to that forest. Since then I have not only learned my lesson, but have also been monitoring that forest to see what recovery might occur. I have noticed a re-emergence of Artist conk, however it is small, and it has been several years since I have denoted any particular spot with notable presence.
From this I have been learning what it takes to harvest the Ancient Reishi sustainably. I would like to present a point that may put things in a more personal perspective. Imagine you cut yourself, it would hurt but you would heal rather quickly as it is only a single cut and, so long as your body was under no other considerable distress would have no problems recovering and resisting infection (for the most part). Now imagine that you have cut yourself several times and broke your leg too. Under these conditions your body is now under considerably more stress and drawing on far greater resources in order to heal. This greatly slows the healing process and without time, aid, rest and proper care (i.e. You where in the wild and needed to have the ability to not only heal but defend yourself from a wide array of attacks from other organisms that are trying to displace you), could be fatal. There are no exclusions to this truth among living things. While amazing in their ability to recover, heal, and defend themselves, this is a truth that no creature, fungi, plant, bacteria, yeast or other organism can avoid, and all living things have their breaking point.
So how do we harvest in a sustainable manner? Well… I have learned a great deal since that first year, and have, with careful consideration and a desire not to repeat my ignorant actions, taken a lot of time for observation. My findings have presented a method of harvesting that seems to present a 70-85% (estimated based on observations) regrowth rate, not of fruit from a similar substrate but of the harvested fruiting body itself regenerating from the growth medium.
To be continued in “Artist Conk: The Ancient Reishi Part 2”