Reishi is no doubt the most famous of all medicinal mushrooms and it is one of very few with such a long history of use; some -though unverifiable- sources state it was probably already used 5000 years ago.
‘Reishi’, the name most people are familiar with, is in fact a Japanese interpretation of the oldest Chinese name; Ruizhi (meaning ‘auspicious mushroom’). The most common name used in China is ‘Ling Zhi‘.
A picture of the Shénnóng Běncǎo Jīng, where the six variations of Reishi were described for the first time.
Other Japanese names are ‘Mannentake’ (10.000 year mushroom), ‘Saiwai-take’ (good fortune mushroom) and ‘Sarunouchitake’ (monkey’s seat). However, as said it is China where this mushroom has the longest history of use. It was first described ± 2200 years ago in the world’s oldest book about herbs and related medicinal subjects; the “Shénnóng Běncǎo Jīng” where it was placed in the category of most superior herbs.
Ling Zhi ( or ‘Chih’ ) was considered the most important mushroom by the ancient Taoists, the founders of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). In Chinese the word ‘Ling‘ is composed of the characters for ‘rain’, ‘shaman’ and ‘praying for’, which, when used together, can mean ‘spiritual potency’ or ‘a stirring of the soul‘ . ‘Chih‘ means ‘tree fungus‘ and ‘substances to concoct elixirs of immortality‘.
All this combined can be poetically translated as: ‘The Herb of Spiritual Potency‘.
Cultivation of antler-shaped Reishi. The odd shape is a side effect of high CO2 levels in the environment and has no therapeutic meaning.
The official Latin name is Ganoderma Lucidum (since 1881). The Ganoderma lucidum moniker is actually covering several species, and mycologists are still investigating the differences among these. Probably the most striking variation is the color; six colors (red, purple, black, white, green and yellow)are found in nature.
Red Reishi is the most researched variation of these six, and, according to research, the most potent one, therapeutically speaking. There are several other Ganoderma species with therapeutic properties, such as G. applanatum (artists conk), G. annulare, G. tsugae, G. resinaceum and G. oregonense.
Reishi is a polypore mushroom, meaning that instead of gills it has small tubes (like pores) through which it releases its spores. It grows annually at the base and on stumps of specific hardwood trees, in particular maple and oak. Unlike Chaga, another medicinal polypore mushroom, which is growing on living trees only, Reishi grows on both dead and living trees, which makes cultivation much more easy to do (see below).
Only two or three out of 10,000 trees in specific areas are infected with Reishi and show the typical fruiting bodies.
Wild Reishi. Notice the scars and damage on the top and bottom. Superior quality wild Reishi is very rare.
In N-America wild Reishi usually has no or only a small stalk, while in Asia Reishi usually has a long, rather narrow stalk. It takes a year for a spore to develop into a mature fruiting body.
Due to harsh environmental conditions, the instability of wild red Reishi in nature and its vulnerability to pollution, disease, and insect infestations, the number of high quality specimens that reach full maturity in the wild is limited. One of the most rare forms in nature is the ‘antler shaped Reishi‘. We now know that the antler shape is caused by high CO2 levels in the environment. In cultivation antler shaped Reishi is therefore easy to grow.
Depiction of Taoist master with Reishi mushroom
Reishi was used in China as the most important part of Fu Zheng therapy, a form of traditional Chinese herbalism that literally means ‘to restore normalcy and balance to the body‘. It can be compared to contemporary western ‘immuno-therapy‘.
Fu Zheng therapy does not specifically treat an infection or disease, but it helps to rebuild the body’s resistance and innate strength so that it may more effectively deal with all manifestations of disease. In the end, the body should heal itself. Reishi is like most medicinal mushrooms a true adaptogen and therefore perfectly suited for Fu Zheng.
Until recently only the rich and privileged members of Asian society were able to benefit from Reishi’s therapeutic potential, because, as said before, wild-harvested Reishi of good quality is quite rare and Reishi requires a very specific environment to develop well.
In the 20th century effective cultivation techniques were developed and now this mushroom is available to everyone. In 2000 China alone produced ± 13,000 tonnes annually but 3 years later it was already 49,000 tonnes, and since then the production has developed exponentially.
Around 30 years ago Reishi products were introduced on the Western market in the form of dietary supplements.