Urban Forager | Reishi, the Leathery Healer

It’s difficult these days to walk around the city without finding fungi growing in planters, on wood mulch, or at the base of trees, so I wasn’t surprised to discover a beautiful cluster of red-shellacked reishi mushrooms growing fan-like at the base of a tree at the College of Staten Island.

Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) a k a ling chih or lingzhi, or varnished conk, is considered a rare medicinal mushroom, though if you’ve seen recent reports of the fungus — from the local 10 o’clock news to City Room — one would think it was appearing everywhere. Reishi has a smooth, dark-reddish-mahogany varnished cap, with whitish edges when young, but flip it over and you’ll find a white-yellowish underside filled with tiny pin-prick pores (it’s a polypore, a brown spore print).

In traditional Chinese Medicine, ling chih is considered the “mushroom of immortality” or “herb of spiritual potency” (according to Gary Lincoff’s “National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms”), and is used as an immunity boost as well as a cancer treatment. (Apparently, it’s edible only when very young and tender, though I have never tried it).

Prior to finding my first reishi growing at the base of a willow tree in upper Manhattan, I’d only ever seen it gracing the shelves of Chinese pharmacies. Since then, I’ve found Ganoderma lucidum growing on hardwood trees — favoring maples and the occasional London plane, and also on the decaying recesses of fallen logs.

Whenever I find a fresh batch away from traffic and the path of city canines, I boil the mushroom for several hours in water. Reishi makes a very bitter, herbal tea that can chase a sore throat away.

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