Reishi, known as the “mushroom of immortality” has one of the longest established histories of medicinal use of any mushroom in the world. The first textual mentions of reishi date back to the Han dynasty, over 2,000 years ago, when Chinese healers discovered medicinal properties. Ancient Chinese scripts documented the mushroom as an “elixir of immortality”. In addition to these texts, reishi has also shown up in ancient artworks related to Taoism. Going back even further, ancient carvings, paintings, and furniture featuring reishi have been discovered.
Ancient Chinese herbalists called reishi Lingzhi because it means “herb of spiritual potency.” Emperor Yan, the first (and most legendary) in the line of ancient China’s rulers, is the founding father of the farming practices and tools that became the foundation of China’s agriculture. He is also the attributed author of the “bible” of medicinal plants: Shennong Ben Cao Jing (a.k.a. Materia Medica). Of reishi, he wrote, “If eaten customarily, it makes your body light and young, lengthens your life, and turns you into one like the immortal who never dies.”
Since reishi was and still is considered one of the most prized medicinal herbs in Chinese medicine, it has often been depicted alongside other powerful symbols in art. For example, in a 16th-century silk painting by Qiu Yang, reishi is presented as a gift to the most worshipped goddess in Chinese mythology, Queen Mother of the West. Another example is the wall painting ChaoYuanTu from the Ming dynasty. In it there are maids holding reishi as gifts to the emperors.
Many Chinese folk tales, myths, and poems also feature reishi. For example, the myth of Magu tells of a beautiful folk woman who lived on Guyu Mountain and practiced Taoism. Magu used the water from the 13 springs on the mountain to brew reishi wine. After 13 years, the wine matured and Magu became immortal. Magu features in both Chinese and Korean literature. She is typically portrayed as having healing powers and as having gifted the world with the healing herbs of cannabis and reishi.
It is also worth mentioning, should we ever need it, that reishi is also called the “resurrection plant”. In the Chinese legend White Snake, Lady White travels far from home to obtain the plant and revive her dead husband. Through her demonstration of love she obtains the mushroom and wins back her husband.
Cultural reishi mushroom history is filled with the wonder this unique mushroom evoked in people. Thematically, reishi consitently appeared as a transformative, healing, and even divine medicinal herb.
Wild reishi remains a rare commodity, and before people began cultivating and growing it, access was mostly limited to Chinese nobility. Reishi mushrooms are included in China’s State Pharmacopoeia of the People’s Republic of China(2000) and are touted to balance Qi (“life force”), ease the mind, and support respiratory health.
Reishi remains a cornerstone of natural medicine in Eastern cultures. With globalization and the growing number of people looking for natural solutions to support their health, scientists are now investigating the validity of the health claims surrounding this traditional herbal remedy.
Cordyceps sinensis is recognized in China as a medicinal treasure. It commonly grows out of the mummified body of a caterpillar, but it also grows on just about every category of insect such as crickets, cockroaches, beetles and ants to name a few, in the highest altitudes in the mountain ranges of Asia. There, cordyceps is famous as yak medicine. When the snow in the mountains melts in spring, the yaks start heading uphill. At 14,000-16,000 feet they find the mushroom and feed on it in frenzy, then rut at fever pitch. It has an anti-aging and stamina-building effect and is especially useful as a post-recover food.
Maitake mushroom (Grifola frondosa), commonly referred to as the “hen of the woods”, has a fascinating origin story, starting in Japan, where maitake has been enjoyed as a super food for thousands of years. Maitake means “dancing mushroom” in Japanese, and while there are many reasons this mushroom may make one dance with joy, one story stands out more than the others. Maitake was a highly valued commodity in feudal Japan, where local lords would trade their subjects an equivalent weight in silver for maitake. Thus, the name “dancing mushroom” stems from the Japanese commoners who would dance for joy when they found maitake, knowing they would be greatly compensated for their discovery. The mushroom was so highly valued in Japan that up until it was commercially grown, the expert mushroom foragers would keep their harvest areas so secret that they would only reveal their locations after their death in their wills.
Maitake is most commonly known as the delicious, woodsy, and spicy mushroom common in many Japanese dishes, and the plethora of health benefits that complement the amazing flavor is an added bonus!