Rejuvenating Reishi Ginger Tea


A fresh coat of snow has fallen upon last fall’s forgotten reishi (Ganoderma tsugae). Clinging to the thick trunks of hemlock trees, these eye-catching, medicinal polypores are the rotting reminders of a prodigious crop. Reishi mushrooms become unusable with the first hard frost, sometimes going rancid as early as June when the slugs and beetles have their way.

Fortunately, we have a fresh batch of reishi tincture in our larder, as well as dried reishi slices for tea. Today I simmered several slices of reishi along with grated ginger, adding just enough honey to cut the bitterness of the adaptogenic mushrooms and let their umami notes shine.

If your pantry is not stocked with the surplus of summer, reishi season will be here again before long, and you can scout likely host trees even in the depths of winter.

Look for white slivers of fleshy new growth on hemlocks in May, which make a mild, nutty sauté but should be left to mature for medicinal use. I typically wait until the end of June to harvest for medicine, once the white growing tips have thinned and the conks have developed a bold, lacquered gradient of color. Be aware that a heavy June rain can summon legions of hungry and industrious slugs – the timing of reishi harvest is a subtle art.

Note that our primary Northeastern reishi species is the hemlock varnish shelf (Ganoderma tsugae), but the less hardy Ganoderma lucidum is widely distributed on hardwoods east of the Rockies. Also look out for the rarer, yellower Ganoderma curtisii on hardwoods from Massachusetts to Nebraska, and Ganoderma oregense on Northwestern conifers.

All reishi species are potent healers, warding off sickness and bringing the body into balance. A double extraction tincture is the best way to capture the full spectrum of water and alcohol soluble constituents, but a cup of reishi ginger tea is always welcome medicine for a dark winter night.

reishi ginger teaHere’s what you’ll need to make a batch of reishi ginger tea for two: 

  • 3 grams dried reishi mushroom (25 grams if fresh)
  • 3 grams fresh ginger, grated or minced
  • 1-2 tablespoons of honey
  • About 5 cups water

Bring a pot of water to a boil. Turn down to the lowest heat and slowly simmer the reishi for 30 minutes, adding additional water as needed. Add the grated ginger, and let simmer another 5-10 minutes. Strain with a fine mesh. Add the honey and stir. Pour into your favorite mugs and taste the rich, slightly bitter, mushroomy essence of the forest.

ForageCast: First Find of the Season

Ari marvels at one of the giant strophs.

Let’s get the bad news out of the way first: my morel count is still at zero. Zero blacks, zero yellows, zero half-frees. Not even a lousy false morel.

To be fair, morels are just coming into season in Northern Vermont. But ever since the early onset of spring jumpstarted the morel season down south in March, I have been staring at the ground with the tenacity of a hungry hawk hunting for prey. Now that morels finally have arrived in my neck of the woods, I already feel somewhat defeated. Perhaps I should’ve patiently waited until there was actually a reasonable chance of finding a morel to begin looking, but I couldn’t help myself.

Still, I am not giving up – spotting a heaping pile of pristine local yellow morels in the local coop yesterday was just the push I needed to keep me fierce and hopeful in my hunting. Morels really are out there now, even though I often feel like I am searching for a needle in the haystack of Vermont’s endless fields and forests.

I may not have any morels in my satchel, but I am no longer empty-handed. On Friday as I drove past my elementary school on the way to our mushroom workshop in Montague, MA, I had my first big find of the season.

“Strophs! Pull over!” I screamed, as my dad’s foot brought the vehicle to a screeching halt. I ran out of the car towards a mulched area brimming with dinner plate-sized shrooms, and a closer inspection proved my drive-by ID accurate. Usually when strophs reach such epic proportions they are already past the eating stage, but the brick red color of these moist, fragrant caps proved they were still in their prime. We filled up a grocery bag and drove home, where we enjoyed the caps for dinner and saved plenty to share with workshop participants.

As I gave a foraging presentation during the workshop the next day, we had another auspicious mushroom moment. I was highlighting the species currently on the ForageCast, and I had just arrived at a slide on reishi mushrooms and explained that they should be emerging from local hemlocks any day now. Perfectly on cue and completely unexpectedly, a graduate from one of my workshops last year swung open the door with a glowing smile and a bandana full of freshly harvested reishi.

Reishi is a powerful medicinal mushroom that makes an ideal candidate for tincturing, but it is usually too woody for the sauté pan. However, the white growing tips of young reishi mushrooms make a delicious meal with a complex earthy, slightly bitter flavor. The workshop graduate, who has become a fervent forager, cooked up the tender reishi tips after the workshop, saving the woodier bases for a tincture. Medicine has never tasted so good!

Northeastern ForageCast for the week of May 14, 2012!

The Restorative Reishi

The white growing tip of these younger reishi means that they are still actively maturing.

Something subversive is brewing in the dimly lit depths of my pantry. Two mason jars sit atop a nondescript white shelf, stuffed with thinly sliced reishi mushrooms steeping in cheap vodka.

Sounds innocent enough, right? Yes, my reishi moonshine is entirely safe and legal, but something tells me that Big Pharma would be less than thrilled about my wildcrafted mushroom tincture concoction. While I certainly see a place for Western pharmaceuticals – they saved my mother’s life three times – there is something empowering and paradigm shifting about finding medicine in the woods instead of at the drugstore.

Many popular pharmaceuticals have active ingredients isolated from plants or fungi or synthetic analogs of these chemicals, but we forget about the natural sources of our medicines when we encounter them as brightly colored pills encased in plastic. It’s no surprise we now take aspirin instead of willow bark tea – turning a plant into a pill makes it easier for a pharmaceutical company to regulate, patent and market a drug.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this, but I am weary of the way it makes us overlook the inextricable connection between human health and ecological health. Perhaps if we were more accustomed to foraging for medicine in the forest, we would think twice before chopping down rainforests that could hold cures to our most menacing diseases, not to mention mitigating our most noxious assault on planetary health – global warming. Any assault on planetary health is ultimately an assault on our own health, but it is easy to overlook this when we cling to the myopic and antiquated notion that technology and medicine will extricate us from whatever environmental quandaries we may face.

Don’t be fooled by the boxes of Annie’s Mac & Cheese – something subversive is brewing in my pantry . . .

Finding a wild reishi mushroom – be it the varnished red Ganoderma tsugae on hemlock in the Northeast and Southwest; the varnished yellow-ocher G. curtisii in southern New England and throughout the central and southeastern states; or the varnished red G. lucidum in southern New England and stretching across the seas into Europe and Asia – can be quite a magical experience. Even though I find reishi regularly in hemlock forests around Ithaca from May through July, I still am mesmerized every time I see a tree covered in them, in all their glossy glory. Reishi are hard to mistake for any other conk mushroom, with their gradient of lacquered red, orange, yellow, and white hues. As a rule, if the conk you are holding is breathtakingly beautiful, you have found a reishi.

Emerging reishi mushrooms make a delicious and medicinal appetizer when lightly sauteed. Because reishi has an indeterminate growth habit, most specimens will grow back after being cut. Nonetheless, I harvest babies sparingly.

As if its looks were not enough, reishi is reputed to have analgesic, anti-allergic, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antioxidant, antitumor, antiviral, anti-HIV, and blood pressure reducing effects. Before reishi cultivation became widespread, in China it was a rare wild mushroom reserved for royalty and their ilk. The Chinese names for reishi – Mushroom of Immortality, Ten-Thousand Year Mushroom, and Herb of Spiritual Potency – reflect its status as a panacea.

Reishi belongs to a class of herbal medicines called adaptogens, a group which includes ginseng, the only other natural medicine traditionally revered quite as highly by the Chinese. Adaptogens are reputed to enhance the body’s overall ability to cope with physical and mental stress. Reishi can be taken acutely when you feel the onset of a cold, but the system strengthening effects may not fully set in until several weeks of daily use in small doses.

Reishi tincture is expensive, and I find making it myself with local conks to be very satisfying. To impart the full spectrum of medicinal components, I make a double extraction tincture that contains both reishi’s alcohol and water-soluble constituents. I already have two additional large mason jars of tincture brewing since the photograph of my pantry distillery was taken!

Last year's reishi mushrooms are no longer of any use medicinally, but they're still eye-catching.

For medicine, it is most efficient and ethical to harvest relatively mature conks. The white growing tip should be very thin or gone, and the overall color gradient should fade to a deeper, but still vivid, red.  If you see a tree or stump that has conks growing directly above one another, look for the thin layer of brown spores that the mature reishi drop on top of their host-mates below. Unlike the perennial artist’s conk, reishi is an annual polypore that will fruit quite reliably every year on the same tree until it has consumed all available substrate. Take care not to consume last year’s reishi, distinguished by their uniform deep maroon cap, softer surface and turquoise rot on the dull brown pore surface.

I have taken a dropperful of reishi tincture almost daily for a couple of years (with occasional breaks), and I have noticed a marked increase in my body’s ability to fight off the common cold. I’m not sure the relaxing effect has fully kicked in yet, but who knows; perhaps if I didn’t take reishi tincture I’d be even more excitable than I already am!

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