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The weaving of the life, medicinal mushrooms and humans

Fungi – they’re everywhere

In the course of the day, an average human can accumulate between 10 and 100 million fungi spores on their body – they are in the air we breathe, on the food we eat and hiding in and amongst most things we touch. Taking a step outside, just a few centimetres below the soil are endless webs of mycelium, the network through which life is communicated, expressed and understood in the natural world. Mushrooms (the fruiting bodies of mycelium) are some of our most immensely intelligent forms of life on the planet and we are only just scratching the surface in beginning to understand their importance within our natural world. So abundant are they that in one cubic inch of soil there can be eight miles worth of mycelium – and, in fact, the largest organism on the planet is the mycelium of the Armillaria ostoyae (the honey fungus) mushroom, which occupies 965 hectares of soil in Oregon, America. Discovered in 1998, this phenomenal fungi is not only 10 square kilometres in size but it is also estimated to be 2 400 years old – some scientists suspect it to be as old as 8 650 years old.

A bond that extends over history and land – humans and mushrooms have an ancient relationship, one which was held in the highest reverence from the depths of Africa to the mountains of Nepal and forests of Europe. This intrinsic connection we share with fungi is a notable one; not only have they been the most delicious of delicacies in meals but they have served as incredible medicines, even aiding in developing many pharmaceutical medicines we use today such as penicillin.

The oldest unearthing and documentation of the consumption of mushrooms came in the form of The Red Lady of El Mirón, Spain. This woman of between 35 and 40 years was buried in Palaeolithic times around 18 700 – 19 000 years ago and, when her ochre-covered remains were discovered, it was found that she had Agaricus and Bolete spores lodged in her teeth, exhibiting that she had enjoyed a meal of foraged fungi before her passing. Findings like these can be examined and traced across some of our greatest nations and cultures, from Greece to Egypt, Siberian and Native American cultures; they have formed part of our history, stories and lives.

Ancient Egyptians, for example, called mushrooms the ‘sons of the gods’ and Set, the god of storms was said to create them through his hurling of lightning bolts to the earth, which were said to be sheathed in mushroom-seeds. The Ancient Greek philosophers were also known to write about fungi, their origins and potentials – the likes of Socrates and Aristotle all wrote about mushrooms, holding them in high esteem and believing they held the potential to bestow wisdom and health to anyone who consumed them.

One of the first truly ground-breaking discoveries came in the form of Ötzi the Iceman – this bronze age man fell into a frozen crevice in the Alps, where his body was almost perfectly preserved in ice since 3300 BCE – under examination he was found to be carrying different artefacts, weapons and interestingly three different mushrooms on his person. The significance of these three mushrooms was incredible and showed the phenomenal and ancient relationship we indeed do have with the world of fungi. The first he carried was chaga a well-known antioxidant-dense anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial medicinal mushroom which is known to treat the intestinal parasite found in Ötzi’s colon, the other two being the birch polypore mushroom, used to hold tinder for fires, which he would have needed to light along his way – this incredible discovery illuminated the truly richly interwoven understanding we have had, as a species of beings, of mushrooms and the world of fungi.

All these findings are beyond incredible – but it can feel somewhat removed. Within the South African context there is an woeful lack of reported, documented and celebrated history, use and traditions around mushrooms and the world of medicinal mushrooms as a whole. Within a South African context, mushrooms are in fact a rich area of exploration – with some of the most incredible history and prolific growth.

An example of this rests in an international research programme undertaken, which seeks to answer some of our most fundamental questions around evolution on our planet and indeed beyond. Fossils were discovered in bubbly lava-formed rock, which once rested beneath the ocean surface in the Ongeluk Formation in the Northern Cape. These incredible specimens showed 2.4 billion year old fungi – this remarkable unearthing implies and suggests that these volcanic cavities were once teaming and crawling with fungal life. Not only is this some of the earliest evidence of fungi life ever discovered but it also represents a breakthrough of our understanding of the evolution of life – that there were fungi in the deep seas evolving into much of what we understand of life today.

Another incredible story comes from the Kalahari truffles – also called n’abbas – these delicacies have been harvested by the Khoisan peoples since times immemorial. Harvested by both men and women, they would be found by looking for cracks or humps in the soils, which is where the name comes from – n’abbas translates to ‘crack’ or ‘burst’ and denotes something which is hidden or hiding. These mushrooms were given another name – eggs of the lightning bird. Due to rainfall being scarce and only occurring between January and June, the Khoi people knew that when there was thunder and the revered lightning bird (identified as the Hamerkop) appeared, she would leave her eggs as a gift of abundance.

From n’abbas to I’kowe, Porcini and Morel, there are innumerable delicacy gourmet mushrooms which are available for harvest in our forests, veldts and deserts – but what about the medicinals?

It may come as a surprise, however, that there is a vast expanse of mushroom medicine resting in our sacred South African lands. More than ever people are getting bitten by the ‘forager’s bug’ – going into the forests in groups and identifying both edible mushrooms, along with medicinals and, in some cases, just funky and interesting fungi which exhibit more of the beauty this world has to offer. South Africa plays host to many different ecological climates and biospheres, from the Afromontane forests to coniferous forests, fynbos and everything between – this diversity sees that we are also able to have many different species of fungi. With more than I can mention, one is able to find some of the most popular and well renowned mushrooms right here – including lion’s mane (see Clinical Casebook with Dr. Arien van der Merwe), turkey tail, cinnabar bracket, African meshima, artist conk, split gill and the incredible reishi.

Reishi (G. Lucidum & spp.) is one of the most revered medicinal mushrooms to date – and for good reason. In a global context, reishi has been recognised as a powerful medicine for over 4 000 years, being documented in some of the most ancient manuscripts on medicines used in those times. In Japan it was seen to be one of the most important medicines – being classified as a superior tonic herb in the Shen Nung Ben Cao Jing (25 – 220 AD). These tonics were considered to prolong life, balancing all three treasures (shen, qi and jing) as well as promote overall wellness. This makes it easy to see why Taoist monks and Chinese royalty used it in order to promote calmness, improve mindfulness and maintain overall wellbeing.

Thanks to modern medicine and science we are able to understand the magic of reishi on an entirely different level – having isolated 130 polysaccharides, over 119 triterpenes and many other phytonutrients. This mushroom contains over 900 bioactive constituents which have been identified, making its potential for healing something truly remarkable.

Overall reishi has been celebrated as a nervine tonic medicine – meaning that it supports the nervous system over long periods of time, additionally being able to promote vitality, calm the mind, promote focus, concentration and wellbeing. China, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States of America have all put immense research into this incredible medicine – affording it the title of the most researched medicinal mushroom globally. When it comes to the immune system, this is where the scientists are finding ground-breaking results. Test-tube studies have demonstrated that the use of reishi can increase white blood cell count, upregulate immune responses and spur on the process of phagocytosis – the natural mechanism by which natural killer cells such as macrophages and lymphocytes rid the body of harmful organisms and toxins. Along with this, reishi has been shown to have phenomenal results in treating auto-immune diseases, liver health, allergies, cancers (in its cytotoxic effect and in spurring on apoptosis in the body (schedules destruction of cancerous cells), as an adjuvant treatment. It is high in antioxidants and is one of the best adaptogenic medicines available to us as a collective – thereby promoting homeostasis in the body.

Reishi is just one of the many medicinals available to us in South Africa – may this serve as an inspiration to grab your field guide, hiking boots and celebrate all that our natural world has to offer us.

It all starts right under your feet, life bursting at the seams and supporting all of existence – a reciprocal relationship – they allow immense healing in us, nourishment and even a means of solving some of the world’s biggest issues at present (myco-remediation) so long as we ensure that they are afforded healthy forests in which to grow, soils in which to flourish and so life – all of it – thrives.

Ricky-Anne Wakeham is co-founder and head herbalist of Aether Apothecary, a proudly South African business built upon the pillars of producing high quality natural medicines and sharing knowledge through which each individual is empowered to be able to tap into the well of radiant wellbeing. The company prides itself in making use of a triple-extraction method in all tinctures, ensuring the highest quality and regulated medicines possible – ensuring that all the bioactive compounds locked in each root, mushroom or leaf become bioavailable to ensure your healing process is supported. With over 57 medicines in its apothecary there is most certainly something for everyone in its armamentarium – along with the possibility of booking a personalised consultation in order to design a herbal protocol for you.

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