Medicinal Mushrooms in the Western Traditions

Medicinal Mushroom Traditions in the West

It would not be fair to neglect the Western medical tradition, even though the use of medicinal mushrooms has never been as widespread as in Asia.

In 1991, the 5,300 year old remains of the natural mummy known as Ötzi the Iceman were found in the Ötztal Alps, on the border of Italy and Austria. The man carried two species of mushrooms (both with well-known medicinal properties) – Fomes fomentarius (tinder fungus), probably used for making fire, and Piptoporus betulinus (birch polypore), a medicinal mushroom known for its antibacterial and antitumor activity.

otzi the iceman mummy
Ötzi the Iceman is a 5,300 year old natural mummy found in the Ötztal Alps in 1991.
fomes fomentarius medicinal mushroom growing on a tree (older specimen)
Fomes fomentarius or tinder mushroom is one of two species of mushrooms carried by Ötzi the Iceman. It can be used for starting fires (after some preparation) and is useful against cancer.
piptoporus betulinus growing on a tree
Piptoporus betulinus is known for its anticancer, anti-inflammatory, antibiotic (especially antibacterial), and antiparasitic activity.

The Ancient Greeks and Romans

Aside from culinary uses, the ancient Greeks and Romans knew several medicinal mushrooms (notably Lycoperdon perlatum, the common puffball), useful for healing wounds. Its use continued through the Middle Age and the Renaissance.

An ancient Roman mosaic in Aquileia (Italy). The ancient Romans favoured Amanita caesarea (Caesar's mushroom) for food.
An ancient Roman mosaic in Aquileia (Italy). The ancient Romans favoured Amanita caesarea (Caesar’s mushroom) for food.

Hippocrates of Cos (Ancient Greece), the “father of modern western medicine”, mentions the use of mushrooms in medicine around the turn of the 5th century BC.

Hippocrates engraving of a bust
An engraving of Hippocrates, the father of modern western medicine, by Dutch artist Peter Paul Rubens, 1638. One of the greatest physicians of his time, Hippocrates based his medical practice on observation, the study of anatomy, and rational explanation of illness, rejecting the superstitious beliefs of their origin. Even today, physicians take the Hippocratic Oath (though in a modernized form) before graduating and starting their practice.
agarikon mushroom fomitopsis officinalis hanging from an old tree
Fomitopsis officinalis, the famous Agarikon mushroom, as the ancient Greeks and Romans called it. They have used it as panacea, or cure-all; it does elicit potent anticancer activity.

Pliny the Elder (1st century AD), a Roman naturalist, author and commander, wrote Naturalis Historia. Inside, he mentions many types of medicinal mushrooms, usually referring to them as Agarikon, so the actual species are mostly unknown. Most probably the name refers to a well-known medicinal mushroom Fomitopsis officinalis (larch polypore), which was used as a cure-all, though frequently confused with similar tree fungi.

Dioscorides was a physician in Nero’s army in the mid-1st century AD who wrote the most widely read work on herbal medicine in history, De Materia Medica, a 5-volume encyclopedia. The old Greco-Roman authorities (Pliny, Dioscorides and Galen) believed that mushrooms are formed from the decay of damp earth, and are toxic or indigestible, and without nutritional value. The only exception to this was the famous “Agarikon”, Fomitopsis officinalis – used as a panacea, i.e. a cure-all, especially for tuberculosis and cancer.

The Dark Ages

De Materia Medica was undisputed for more than 1500 years, effectively reducing the traditional use of medicinal mushrooms in the West. The misconceptions of Dioscorides and Galen still remain present in many minds even today.

dioscorides de materia medica
Dioscorides (40-90 C.E.), a Greek medic in the Roman Army, wrote Περι υλης ιατρικης (Peri ulhV iatrikhV), better known by its Latin name De materia medica (On Medical Material). De Materia Medica is a 5-volume encyclopaedia containing about 600 plants and 1,000 medicines derived from them. During the next 1,500 years, it was the most important pharmacological work in Europe and the Middle East and accepted as dogma (set of principles given by an authority as unquestioningly true). Here are 3 editions: in Latin, Greek and Arabic which were in circulation during the medieval period; after 1478 it was also printed in Italian, German, Spanish, and French. While the use of medicinal mushrooms in the West was never widespread, the influence of De materia medica made mushrooms even less popular.
medieval scriptorium where books were copied
Scriptorium (Latin: “a place for writing”), was a room in some medieval European monasteries where monastic scribes copied the manuscripts. This was the main way of transferring knowledge before the (western) invention of the printing press around 1440. Only in the Renaissance was dogma overruled by the power of rational reasoning and experiment.

St. Hildegard of Bunge, a 12th century Christian saint and mystic was ahead of her times. In her works on medicine, she wrote, almost 800 years ago, that mushrooms growing on trees are edible or medicinal. Interestingly, there are no known poisonous species of woody mushrooms (polypores), though most are too hard to be eaten.

East Europe and Beyond

On the other hand, there are rich East European traditions (mostly Slavic: Russian, Polish and Czech; but also Hungarian) of using medicinal mushrooms. Inonotus obliquus (Chaga) is probably the most well-known; together with Piptoporus betulinus it was used for treating cancer. Other medicinal mushrooms used include Laricifomes officinalis (= Fomitopsis officinalis), Fomes fomentarius, Phellinus igniarius, and many others.

inonotus obliquus chaga
Chaga, Inonotus obliquus, is a famous medicinal mushroom for cancer, especially in Russia where it has been used since at least the 16th century. Aside from its effects on cancer, it modifies the immune system, fights viral infections, helps normalize blood sugar and cholesterol levels, and has antioxidant and antiaging effect.

Traditional use of mushrooms emerged in other places around the world, although on a much smaller scale. We should mention some South and North American tribes, Australian Aborigines, several Nigerian tribes and elsewhere in Africa. Ethnomycologists exploring the rapidly disappearing traditions of medicinal use of mushrooms still have a lot to discover.

Image sources: Paul Hanny, Flickr:: fotoculus, Scot Nelson