Understanding Polypore Mushrooms: Some basics and more
Polypore mushrooms are tough and leathery, similar in appearance to boletes but without the distinct stalks that characterize the latter. Technically though, you can differentiate the two by noting that polypore mushrooms don’t have spore-bearing tissues on their underside. In fact, many polypore mushrooms are the bracket fungi type. A lot of polypore mushrooms fall under Polyporales but there remain many that are part of other groups. You can typically find polypore mushrooms on rotting logs, though they themselves won’t rot, lasting long enough to be covered in moss. This resistance to rot is what makes polypore mushrooms capable of producing anti-pathogenic compounds.
There are a lot of polypore mushrooms out there but they are usually overlooked because they are not edible. From what are edible though, many of the mushrooms are usually used for medicinal and ritual purposes. Two of the most commonly used polypore mushrooms today are the reishi mushrooms (Ganoderma lucidum) and the Trametes versicolor. Polypore mushrooms also have quite a reputation thanks to Otzi the Iceman, a mummy found in the Otztal Alps, because his remains were found to be carrying two other polypore mushrooms, the Piptoporus betulinus and the Fomes fomentarius. Since Otzi the Iceman is believed to have been alive around 3,300 BC, then the existence of polypore mushrooms dates back to the same time period.
In traditional Chinese medicine, reishi mushrooms (Ganoderma lucidum) have been used for over 2,000 years, making it one of the oldest types of mushrooms to be utilized by men. But while reishi mushrooms are heavily favored for their health benefits and lack of side effects, these polypore mushrooms are actually quite rare, growing in just two out of, say, 10,000 trees in a forest. The tradition of using reishi mushrooms though persisted through the years and today has led to the cultivation of the mushrooms in outdoor environments and indoor structures to address the issue of scarcity. To prove that this polypore mushroom has been recognized for its benefits, it is listed as a part of the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia and Therapeutic Compendium.
As for the Trametes versicolor, it is a common polypore mushroom found all over the world, characterized by the many colors it comes in as reflected in its name. It is also commonly referred to as “turkey tail” since its body resembles that of a wild turkey’s tail. For medical purposes, a chemical called polysaccharide-K is extracted from this polypore mushroom as a component in immunoadjuvant treatment for cancer, boosting the immune system for therapy in some countries in Europe as well as Japan and China. Japan, in fact, greatly approves of the use of polysaccharide-K in treating cancer, supporting treatments by covering its use with government health insurance.
Some of the other medical benefits of polypore mushrooms, aside from anti-cancer properties, include:
- Promoting proper cholesterol levels by inhibiting absorption, as seen from the effects of Aspergillius terreus and Pleurotus species where an ingredient known as statin is isolated;
- Supporting anti-viral and anti-microbial activities, as seen from various antibiotics derived from fungi like penicillin, fusidic acid, alamethicin, peictasin, caspofungin, griseofulvin, and micafungin;
- Alleviating migraines, as seen in more than 200 species of the mushroom that produces psilocin (a serotonin analog) and psilocybin (psilocin’s phosphorylated form), and ergoline alkaloids isolated originally from Claviceps purpurea that are used in creating migraine medications today; and
- Soothing inflammations, as seen in animal studies where anti-inflammatory activity is reported because of isolated anti-inflammatory compounds from polypore mushrooms, such as benzocamphorin F, antcin A, quercinol, inotilone, and cordycepin.
But while polypore mushrooms indeed have benefits to health, aiding in building up the body to be its best, they do have another side to them that is prized for their ability to promote decay and rotting in wood. In fact, the presence of a healthy polypore mushroom can spell the start of the end for the tree where it is discovered because more often than not closer inspection would reveal that the heart wood has started to decay, turning reddish brown due to rot because of the mycelium in the mushroom. Some polypore mushrooms are even studied extensively in biotechnology to assess their wood-rotting capabilities and determine methods that would make it possible to extract these capabilities and use them in industrial applications.
Polycore mushrooms are beneficial but it’s important to understand how to identify them if you want to make use of what you may discover in the wild. Keep in mind that while mushrooms are edible, not all can be eaten. Ingestion might not necessarily fatal but you will surely experience a lot of discomfort. Some of the edible species you can safely touch include Agaricus bisporus (white button, champignon, Portobello), Agrocybe aegerita (Pioppino), Auricularia auricular (kikurage, wood ear), Lentinula edodes (shiitake), Pleurotus eryngii (eringi, king oyster mushroom), Morchella esculenta (morel), Volvariella volvacea (straw mushroom) and Ustilago maydis (Mexican truffle).