Fomitopsis officinalis – large tree-dwelling mushroom with medicinal and spiritual properties. Fomitopsis officinalis is a hefty, bracket fungus and can be found on the trunks of coniferous hosts, where it causes a brown-rot.
The fruiting bodies persist for many years, becoming longer and longer as they grow. This species occurs worldwide, and has gone by several common names including Agarikon, Quinine Conk, Larch Bracket Mushroom, Brown Trunk Rot and Eburiko. The large sporophores were documented over 2000 years ago by the Greek pharmacist Dioscorides, who recorded the mushroom’s effectiveness in treating Consumption, which we now know as Tuberculosis. Throughout the ages, early Europeans and Central Asians traditionally used this species for treatment of many ailments and infectious diseases, including coughing illnesses, asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, bleeding, and infected wounds. The key pharmaceutically-active compound found in Fomitopsis officinalis is Agaricin (or agaric acid), a white, water-soluble powder that can be administered both orally and topically. Agaricin is an anhidrotic, anti-inflammatory, and parasympatholytic agent, and is now produced synthetically by many pharmaceutical companies.
Interestingly, the medicinal properties of Fomitopsis officinalis are believed to have been discovered independently by the isolated Indigenous People of North America. In North America, these fungi were referred to as “bread of ghosts” or “tree biscuits,” references to the spiritual powers of the mushroom and its hanging fruiting bodies. The mushroom was an important resource for Shamans, who would apply Fomitopsis officinalis powder to cure ailments thought to be caused by supernatural forces.
These fungi were not only utilized for their medicinal properties, but were also valued as spiritual and supernatural objects. The large fruiting body structures were often carved to represent various spiritual figures and spirit catchers, as assumed by the large orifices in the mouth and stomach. These carved figures were often hung from the ceiling of special dance houses of the Shaman to protect the people during rituals. Because of the key role Fomitopsis officinalis played in the life of the Shaman, it was only natural that the mystical fungi should accompany him in the afterlife. The sporophores were carved as jewelry, painted or sometimes coated in a protective substance and placed at the head of the shaman’s grave site, to serve as his “grave guardians”. These grave guardians not only protected the shaman’s burial site, but also warned people of the area that the site was occupied by spirits and should never be approached.
Many of these grave guardian artifacts, collected by explorers and archeologists in the late nineteenth century, were originally believed to be made of wood. It was only recently, when investigating wood deterioration in these “wooden” artifacts, scientists realized the grave guardians were in fact a fungus. Fruiting bodies of Fomitopsis officinalis are perennial: Each year (or so) a new layer of spore-producing tubes grows at the bottom of the conk. In the past, these the tube layers had apparently been mistaken for the annual growth rings of a tree. Microscopic examination of the hymenial layers revealed the fungal origins of the grave guardians. These artifacts can now be found in the collections of several North American museums. As for the great Fomitopsis officinalis, although once common throughout most temperate regions of the world, it is now believed extinct in most of Europe and Asia. However, it can still be found deep within the old-growth forests of Washington, Oregon and British Columbia in the Pacific Northwest, and modern-day mycophiles continue to stress the importance of this valuable and historic polypore.