Mycellium, or the mushroom kingdom, was formed at least 1.3 billion years ago. The mushroom kingdom has been essential for the inception and growth of diverse plant forms over eons. Over 38,000 species of mushrooms exist. Their medicinal and nutrient benefits have been recognized by humans since the “Stone Age.” One of the most well-known and knowledgeable experts on mushrooms is Paul Stamets.
Mushrooms are a primitive fungus, rather than a vegetable. They cannot use chlorophyll to produce sugars, so wild mushrooms are usually found in dark, dense places like tree roots in dense forests. Mushrooms live on decaying plant and insect matter. They are natural recyclers, living symbiotically with their food source, extracting sugars, and creating soil minerals in return. The fungal network is actually below ground, while the edible portion is analogous to the flowering portion of a plant. It creates spores to be scattered by the wind for reproduction.
Asian traditions have used mushrooms medicinally since ancient times. Applications include promoting mucus clearing in the lungs, reducing lipid levels in the blood, clearing heat from the body, and perhaps most notably, bolstering the immune system. In Japan, the reishi type of mushroom is officially recognized in treating cancer.
Mushrooms are nutrient dense. They are good sources of usually deficient selenium, an important trace mineral and antioxidant booster, that has been studied for its benefits in preventing cancer. Another trace mineral found in mushrooms, germanium, improves the body’s use of oxygen. Mushrooms contain protein, amino acids, vitamin B-complex, magnesium, potassium and vitamin C. Mushrooms are low in calories and fat. The linoleic acid in mushrooms promotes heart health. While the Japanese varieties of mushrooms, reishi, maitake, and shiitake, are recognized for their immune enhancing properties, all mushrooms promote immune health.
Though mushrooms have a thin outer cell, they should be steamed or heated at least slightly to improve their digestibility and release their nutrients. Fresh mushrooms can be stored unwashed in the refrigerator, in a shallow glass dish, covered with a damp towel, and used as soon as possible after purchasing. Dipping mushrooms in lemon water will help to keep them from darkening. They add nutrients, wonderful texture, and flavor to any dish including salads, soups, stews, sandwiches, and casseroles. Mushrooms contain glutamic acid which is a natural flavor enhancer.
Spring is a perfect time for enhancing the immune system with the varieties of the freshest mushrooms available at the Santa Fe Farmer’s Market.
Mary Sjoberg, R.Ph.