As an avid hiker of the mountains of British Columbia, with every step I take, I see mushrooms. As someone who is interested in functional health and medicinal plants, the world of mushrooms has always intrigued me. Considered a super food, medicinal mushrooms have been used in traditional medicine throughout China and other East Asian countries for centuries. With over 10,000 known varieties, mushrooms have been evolving and thriving for millions of years - long before the Jurassic period.
Mushrooms are a low calorie, rich source of fiber, as well as protein, B vitamins, vitamin C, vitamin D, antioxidants and minerals, and their healing properties are numerous. Medicinal mushrooms contain a class of polysaccharides known as beta-glucans that have been found to have antitumor and immunostimulant properties. Some medicinal mushrooms are antibacterial, anti-viral, anti-microbial, anti-fungal, anti-aging, anti-oxidation, anti-radiation and are considered metal chelating agents.
Science Direct defines medicinal mushrooms as “macroscopic fungi that are used in the form of extracts or powder for prevention, alleviation, or healing of multiple diseases, and/or in balancing a healthy diet”.
My interest and knowledge of the power of medicinal mushrooms has grown over the years, and I now incorporate mushroom coffee, smoothies, and the occasional mushroom tincture into my daily health regiment.
It was my love of hiking and being in the woods that convinced me to take my curiosity to the next level. I looked for an opportunity to take a mushroom class that included a forest tour with a guide. Mushrooms can be a tricky business – with some aptly named the death cap, autumn skullcap and destroying angels – you really want to ensure you know what you are picking. I certainly didn’t want to end up with liver toxicity, kidney failure or to die in the process!
Although the awareness of medicinal mushrooms has escalated in recent years, it was surprisingly difficult to find local a foraging class. After reaching out to a few friends that I felt would be into this sort of thing, I was introduced to Shaggy Jack – a mushroom aficionado, who offered forest foraging excursions on the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia.
I knew right away that I had found the teacher I was looking for. Shaggy Jack looks exactly the way his name sounds, and he has been foraging for wild edible and medicinal mushrooms on the Sunshine Coast since 2012. His crash-course workshop began with an indoor learning component where he spent 3-4 hours teaching us how to identify mushrooms that are safe to eat. We were taught the basic life-cycle and ecology of mushrooms and how to recognize and target mushroom habitats. We were introduced to a wide variety of common edible, medicinal and toxic mushroom species that could be naturally found on the Sunshine Coast of BC.
The outdoor component was the most exciting (of course!), as we embarked on a foraging excursion to learn in real-time how to forage correctly. This 2.5-hour excursion was eye-opening, and although I hike in the deep woods a few times a week, there are mushrooms growing in plain sight I had truly never noticed before. On our foraging excursion, I picked a full basket of winter chanterelles and found a couple highly coveted pine mushrooms. That night I made mushroom risotto that was a hit with the family!
There are many people who feel that fungi are the way of the future – even some that feel the humble mushroom can save the world. Fungi is certainly starting to gain mainstream attention, particularly in the wellness space. It is also gaining status in the art world. In the UK there is an exhibition at London’s Somerset House that explores the future of fungi, showcasing how the humble mushroom may have the potential to revolutionise the way we live. Fungi is now being used as a natural, renewable alternative to plastics, and is being looked at as a potential biofuel. It is also being considered as a natural alternative to pesticides, and there have been experiments to see how effective mushrooms are in cleaning up oil spills. Not to mention that they are currently being used to cure depression, PTSD, and addiction, with the FDA slated to approve them for this use (legally – not just through a trial) by 2024.
There is a fabulous Netflix documentary called The Fantastic Fungi, directed by Louis Schwartzberg, which I highly recommend watching. This documentary is a beautiful, mind-altering film about mushrooms and their interwoven root system called mycelium, which acts as a communication network directly under the forest floor.
From reishi and lion’s mane, to turkey tail and chaga, mushrooms have the power to heal and sustain – not only our health, but potentially also our environment. Perhaps the next time you embark into nature you will now take notice of the mushrooms growing in abundance and think a little bit differently about the impact they may have in our world and on future generations. Happy foraging!