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Identifying functional mushrooms in the wild

The type of fungi that offer adaptogenic and medicinal properties in addition to nutrition are categorized as functional mushrooms. The exact composition of bioactive compounds and specific benefits for the human body differ for each mushroom type. What makes each mushroom type unique is also the shape and where it grows in nature. Let us look at some functional mushrooms and how to spot them in their natural habitat.

Hericium Erinaceus commonly known as Lion’s Mane is a functional mushroom that has the appearance of a white spherical fungi with long shaggy spines, resembling an actual Lion’s Mane. If you are walking the untouched jungles of Asia, Europe and North America, there is a possibility you might find Lion’s Mane growing on hardwood trees such as birch, maple, oak, walnut and sycamore. A lion’s Mane is easy to identify with its white colour and snowball-like shape from which the spines of the Manes grow out. Though Lion’s Mane is an edible mushroom it has a mild and slightly sweet flavour similar to that of seafood and its size can range anywhere between a softball to a volleyball.

Cordyceps Sinensis or Ophiocordyceps sinensis, commonly known as caterpillar fungus, is a rare combination of a caterpillar and a fungus found at high altitudes.  The term cordyceps comes from Latin words meaning club and head.

Walking through the wild, you can see these mushrooms grow as parasites on insects. The base of the mushrooms originates from an insect larva as its host and usually shows indistinct light yellow or yellowish-brown colour with pitchy stripes and abundant hyphae.

Cordyceps Sinensis has been described as an exotic medicinal mushroom and has been used for centuries in traditional Chinese and Tibetan medicine.

Ganoderma lucidum or Reishi mushrooms is also known as the “mushroom of immortality”. It can be found growing on the logs of deciduous trees such as maple, oak, plum, elm and even conifers throughout the world. It has the shape of a fan or a kidney and shows a colour between the shades of orange to red. While the top can be shiny and show any colours from reddish brown to purple, yellow, black or blue, the bottom is generally white. Although considered edible, Reishi offers a rough texture and bitter taste due to the high concentration of triterpenes.

Lentinus edodes or Shiitake mushrooms can be seen growing on the hardwood surfaces of oak, maple, and ironwood trees. These mushrooms have twisted stems and umbrella-shaped, tan to brown caps with the edges rolling inwards. While the cap offers a shade of brown, the underside and stems are generally white in colour. Shiitake was probably the first mushroom cultivated by humans for mass use. Considered edible, Shiitake mushrooms offer an earthy, smoky flavour and a soft meaty flavour when cooked. It is widely used in cooking as it is also high in protein, fibre, vitamins and minerals in addition to its bioactive compounds.

Inonotus obliquus commonly known as Chaga and referred to as “the king of the medicinal mushrooms,” grows as as a black, charcoal-like mass (called a conk) with a woody, rusty-brown interior generally protruding out of the bark of birch trees. It is generally found growing on white and yellow birch trees in cold climates in Siberia, Alaska and northern Canada. Chaga is a polypore fungus characterized by having numerous pores instead of a typical laminar gill structure. The average size of a fully grown Chaga mushroom is 15 to 20 inches and they can also grow larger. Although considered edible, Chaga has an earthy, bitter flavour just like its exterior.

Trametes versicolor or Turkey Tail Mushroom is a fungus in the shape of semi-circular caps that typically grows on decomposing trees of oak, white birch and maple trees, sometimes even conifers in forests across Asia, North America and Europe. The Turkey tail caps are thin yet tough and showcase velvety concentric rings in multiple colours varying between yellow, grey, purple, green, brown or black. The mushroom finds its name from the colours which generally resemble turkey’s feathers. Although classified as an edible mushroom, Turkey Tail has an extremely bitter taste and a chewy texture.

Next time, you are out in the wild, keep an eye out for these functional mushrooms.

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