Friday, February 16, 2007
Sticks and stones. The Varnished Conk is called by many names. It is a polypore mushroom many of which are collectively referred to as brackets or shelves because of the way they jut out from the side of a tree. The Chinese have a more imaginative name, Monkey's Bench. This particular Monkey's Bench mushroom has been recorded and even revered in China, Korea, and Japan for its health-giving properties for over two thousand years. Both its Japanese name, Reishi, and its Chinese name, Ling Chih, are as widely used in this country as the Latin and English names.
When and where found. I found this rather small Varnished Conk on an oak stump beside the path at Foss Farm in the fall of last year where it was sharing the stump with a nice fruiting of Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor). Even though the Varnished Conk is an annual, it is longer lasting than most mushrooms and was still there under the snow on February 3 when I picked it. Its cousin, the Artist's Conk, is a perennial mushroom which grows a new layer of spore-producing tubes over the old ones every year, so I don't pick them.
Distinguishing characteristics. The Varnished Conk is most recognizable when young. At that stage the top surface, especially when wet, is so shiny it looks like it has been lacquered and it is a rich dark red. As it matures, the top gets covered with spores giving it a dusty brown appearance but you can brush them off and confirm the color and the sheen underneath. It has two different growth forms: one has little or no stalk and is more truly like a shelf, and the other, like this one from Foss Farm, has a tough lateral stalk which is shiny like the cap. The stalked ones tend to be smaller, never more than six inches across, while the others can reach 12 inches. The caps of both are kidney- or fan-shaped. The pores on the underside are tiny with as many as 25 to 45 in a quarter inch.
The mushroom that looks most like the Varnished Conk is the Hemlock Varnish Shelf (Ganoderma tsugae) which grows only on conifers. The Varnished Conk grows only on deciduous trees. It is reputed to favor maple although the Foss specimen was on oak.
Cultivation. This mushroom adapts well to cultivation. You can grow it outdoors on logs the way many people grow their own Shitakes by drilling holes in the logs and inserting plugs of mushroom spawn. Spawn is the term for fungal mycelium used for propagation. The mycelium will grow and in favorable conditions produce mushrooms. You can find sources on the Internet.
Better living through mushrooms. This mushroom is not edible in the normal sense of the word — you wouldn't want to serve it sautéed with an omelette — but it contains many health-giving polysaccharides and triterpenoids that enhance the body's ability to fight tumors. It also has anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. In Mycelium Running, Paul Stamets describes how these properties are achieved. He also outlines medical studies conducted over the past 20 years that are beginning to substantiate what has long been known in eastern medicine. We are still a distance from the Chinese name Ling Chih which translates to "mushroom of immortality."
References. David Arora, Mushrooms Demystified; Paul Stamets, Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World — this book has detailed descriptions of mushroom cultivation techniques and a lot of medical information; Gary H. Lincoff, Audubon Field Guide to Mushrooms of North America.
Submissions and ideas for the Biodiversity Corner are encouraged from everyone on any nature topic in town. You can write the column or tell mer what you saw and I will write it. The organism doesn't have to be unusual. The only requirements are that it exists in the wild and was seen in Carlisle. Send a note to firstname.lastname@example.org
© 2007 The Carlisle Mosquito