For thousands of years, people around the world have relied on mushrooms for nutritious food and powerful medicine. Thankfully, they figured out which mushrooms are beneficial to humans and which are likely to get you killed—a process of trial and error that we, as modern humans, ought to be deeply grateful for!
However, much of this knowledge is now lost among the modern public. The sacrifices of early humans who figured out how to use these gifts from nature for food and healing shall not be made in vain!
To that end, we’ll now explore how to identify and use some of the most potent medicinal mushrooms in the world. Whether it’s for wound care, boosting your immune system, stomping out bacteria and viruses, or almost any other medicinal use you can imagine, there’s a wild mushroom that’s perfect for the job.
This is only a tiny sampling of the medicinal mushrooms out there, but for this list I focused on species that are:
- Extremely easy to identify
- Easy to find in the United States
- More medicinal than edible
Many edible species have healing qualities as well, but the ones I included for this list are primarily used for medicine.
I also picked species that serve a variety of health-related uses, so that you can have a brief but well-rounded introduction to the awesome power of some of these potent and mysterious organisms.
The mushrooms on this list are most commonly used in several ways. All of them can be made into teas. Many can also be applied topically, either as part of an ointment or by pressing the mushroom, whole or powdered, directly to the skin.
Lastly, you can make tinctures of these with alcohol, which can extract more of their active chemicals than simply boiling them in water can. Mushrooms that aren’t used immediately should be completely dried to prevent rotting and mold.
As with all foraging, always ensure you are 100% certain on identification before harvesting. Also start out with small amounts of any new tincture, tea, or preparation made from wild fungus you’ve never tried before.
1. Turkey Tail Mushrooms (Trametes versicolor)
This gorgeous little shelf mushroom, with its distinctive rings of color, is named after turkey tails because, well, they look kind of like little turkey tails. These medicinal powerhouses have anti-tumor, anti-septic, immune boosting, anti-oxidant, and anti-bacterial properties, among others, and are said to aid digestion as well.
Clinical studies have shown them to benefit cancer patients, HIV/AIDS sufferers, and anyone who wants a to supercharge their immune system, either for prevention or to stomp out cold and flu more quickly after they’ve taken hold.
Drink a tea made from fresh or dried turkey tails, or apply them topically to wounds. Some apothecaries and herbalists even sell them dried and powdered in gel caps, as is done with other species on this list.. You can find these little guys on rotting stumps and logs, growing in dense clusters.
Some other mushrooms look very similar, but a few distinctive characteristics will help you ensure you have the right mushroom. Turkey tails are bracket fungus, which means they appear as a bracket or “shelf” sticking out from the wood where they grow.
Look for a color range of white and brown to blue and rusty red, though some may have more vibrant colors like blues and purples. The key is that the color rings are distinct. The texture should be leathery and flexible, and caps should be as thin as wafers. A fine fuzz or hair covers the top of the colorful caps.
For an even better test, check the mushroom’s bottom. The bottoms of the caps should also be white or off-white to ensure you have a turkey tail. Also, turkey tails are “polypores,” which means their undersides are covered in tiny holes.
These are actually openings to tubes that run through the mushroom. False turkey tail may not have these tubes, and other lookalikes have jagged pores that look more like teeth. Grab a ruler and look at one millimeter of the mushroom’s pore surface. If you can count 3-8 pores per millimeter—tiny enough that you may need a magnifying glass to be able to see them clearly—you have a real turkey tail.
The bands of color should be very distinct, showing clear differentiations rather than simply being varying shades of the same color, or colors that don’t appear in distinct bands.
2. Chaga Mushroom (Inonotus obliquus)
Growing up and spending long hours or even days at a time in the woods, I’d occasionally notice this black, dreadful-looking lump encrusted to the trunks of birch trees. I always assumed the lumps were some sort of tree cancer.
As I would discover with great delight, those black lumps are far from cancerous. Although parasitic to trees, studies of their chemistry have revealed them to be one of the most antioxidant-rich substances on the entire planet. In fact, these black lumps—known as chaga mushroom—are about 45 times higher in antioxidants than Acai berries, making this trendy and pricey superfood seem nutritionally impotent in comparison.
As far as what chaga tea is good to treat, there is hardly an ailment on the planet that chaga wouldn’t be good for. That isn’t to say it’s a panacea, of course, but for centuries it has been used in the treatment of everything from stomach pains and liver problems to flu and psoriasis.
One of the coolest things about chaga is that it’s a cold weather mushroom, and can only be harvested during fall and winter. Therefore, it provides an ultra-potent source of medicine and an immune boost during the months when a survivalist would need it most, and when nature can’t provide as many other options (during summer, chaga is watery and loses most of its nutrition until fall. Harvest only after the weather cools to 40 degrees Fahrenheit for three or more consecutive weeks, when birches aren’t leaking sap).
And with its distinctly gnarly appearance manifesting almost exclusively on birches, it’s incredibly easy to identify. After a heavy snow they’re even easier to spot, as you can spot the black chunk of chaga hanging off the tree more easily when there’s snow on top of it.
First, though, there are some nuances to harvesting chaga. First off, it shouldn’t be done in a way that harms the tree. Both trees and chaga are precious, and if the tree dies, so does the fungus. For the same reason, never harvest chaga from a dead tree, because that means any chaga attached to it will be dying as well and won’t be any good.
In addition, the chaga should be removed without ever harming the tree. Therefore, stick to chaga that is low enough on the trunk to reach. For any that you can reach, you want to saw it off just above where it meets the bark, so that you’re never cutting into the tree itself. Also, only take large chaga that has grown to at least seven pounds.
They take decades to grow and can co-exist with the trees they infect for easily twenty years or more, so leave smaller pieces alone to ensure you’re harvesting sustainably. For the same reason, don’t take all the chaga at once. Leave some behind so that the organism can live on after you’ve taken your portion.
When you make chaga tea, use pieces that have plenty of exposed interior flesh. The rich inside will be a coppery color, and is softer than the hard exterior. The flavor is rich and earthy…I find a mug of warm chaga tea quite enjoyable on a cold winter night in front of a roaring fire, with a dash of nice spices like cinnamon thrown in the mix.
3. Birch Polypore (Fomitopsis betulina, previously known as Piptoporus betulinus)
The birch polypore is another incredibly useful medicinal fungus that’s super easy to identify with no real lookalikes, and grows almost exclusively on birches. They appear as rounded little brackets or shelves on weakened or dying birch trees.
The younger they are, the rounder they are. They’re brownish on top and white on the bottom, with a smooth surface and rubbery texture. They almost look like they’re made of dense foam. And finding a birch tree covered in these little guys is a survivalists’ dream come true.
Why, you ask? Well, the array of incredible survival uses for birch bracket mushrooms is staggering. You can use the flesh to sharpen blades or use it as fire starter. Birch polypores can also be used to transfer hot coals and embers as you move from place to place and have a “portable fire” to take with you. Aside from all of that, they are also a potent medicinal with an amazing range of uses.
They’re anti-parasitic, anti-bacterial, anti-septic, anti-inflammatory, anti-tumor, anti-viral, and are an immune booster. You can achieve these effects with teas, tinctures, and pastes made from the flesh. But an even cooler trick is the birch polypore bandage. To make one, cut a thin slice of the flesh in rectangles to make strips of various sizes. Then dry the slices out.
When you have a wound, wet one of the dried slices of appropriate size to get it soft and gummy, and then wrap it directly around the wound. The flesh will stick to itself and it will dry on your skin, transferring its medicine into your wound for a self-contained, powerfully medicated super-dressing.
As another mushroom that grows well in winter, its medicinal and first aid abilities make it a potential life-saver for surviving in a cold weather setting. I like to drink dried birch polypore tea in the afternoon…in addition to being mildly mushroomy and particularly pleasant steeped with some crushed ginger, it also keeps me from getting sick all winter long.
4. Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum)
Reishi has been used by the Japanese and Chinese for thousands of years to improve health, treat disease, and combat aging. And according to modern science, those ancient herbalists were definitely on to something.
It’s anti-inflammatory, anti-tumor, anti-bacterial, analgesic, relieves allergies, reduces depression and anxiety, reduces insulin resistance, balances cholesterol, assists liver and kidney function…the list goes on and on.
Reishi caps are often bumpy with a shiny, almost slimy-looking surface. Caps display a red center and faded rings of coppery reddish-brown or rusty yellow leading finally to a white edge. Older specimens become duller.
Some specimens are more copper-colored than red, but they’ll stick within the same general palette. Reishi is a polypore, so the bottom of caps will be covered in tiny holes, or tubes. The pore surface under each cap is white to tan.
There are related species that have their own visual quirks and qualities, but all look similar and are medicinal like the lucidum, so all are usually referred to as reishi. They usually grow near the bases of trees, and will be more wavy or wrinkly when they’re younger, flattening out as they get older but developing a lumpy cap surface.
The flesh also becomes tougher. Second-year specimens will be dull, deep red, and fibrous, and have lost most of their nutritional qualities. If you aren’t sure if you have found first or second year reishi, check the pore surface on the bottom of the caps. Second-year specimens will be brown or black with rot rather than white.
Harvest mature specimens and make a tea or tincture from the flesh, and you’ll be enjoying one of the most ancient and most potent health foods on earth. You might even call Reishi and other mushrooms humanity’s original superfoods for illness prevention and treatment.
Store-bought supplements, over-the-counter medicine, and pharmaceuticals consist of a massive industry that depends, in part, on the populace remaining in a state of sickness and not knowing how to create powerful medicines of their own.
While modern medicine is certainly a marvel, we could create a healthier and more positive world by getting more of our medicine directly from mother nature—and save a lot of money in the process.
Even absent a survival scenario, these mushrooms are powerful tools that can improve your health and crush colds, flu, and other forms of illness at least as effectively as many store-bought products. And in a survival setting, they could be potentially life-saving.
Eric is a nature-loving writer, experience junkie, and former Boy Scout who never forgot that time-honored Scout Motto: Be prepared. Aside from camping and survival, he loves writing about travel, history, and anything he finds strange and unique!
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