On Ling Zhi (Ganoderma, Reishi Mushroom)
by Eric Brand
Above is a rather nice photo of Ling Zhi that I took at an herbal marketplace in Guangzhou. When Ling Zhi is cultivated, it naturally gets a very glossy, shiny appearance that almost looks like lacquer. It can also be cultivated to grow in an “antler” shape; this form is called Ling Zhi Rong. The antler form looks like deer antlers rather than a mushroom; it is long and thin with branches at the tip.
Wild Ling Zhi forms a mushroom shape and tends to be dull in color. However, spores are sometimes dusted over the top of the cultivated product to give it the dull appearance of the wild product (these specimens have spores dusted on the top of the mushroom- the real spores are on the underside). Wild Ling Zhi can be very expensive but it is difficult to gauge its quality without expertise. The pure spores are also sold, but again a trusted source is required because the spores can be very expensive and they can be easily diluted or faked.
The whole mushroom is difficult to slice and it is somewhat arduous to extract. It is rich in polysaccharides and should be extracted in water, but it has a somewhat terrible flavor and doesn’t extract very well unless it is first sliced with specialized equipment (you could easily lose a finger trying to slice it with a big chopper and slicing with a knife would be impossible). The spores are easier to use and are more bio-available because they are naturally a fine powder, but their high cost and often uncertain purity limits their utility. All in all, the best way to use Ling Zhi is to use a strongly concentrated dried water extract (granules). A good extract still tastes rather bad but it can be quite potent and easy to use.
Ling Zhi is broadly divided into red and black forms, though other colors were also described in ancient source texts. The two species that get the most attention are Ganoderma lucidum and Ganoderma japonicum; the former is the most heavily researched in China and the latter is more prominent in Japan. There is little evidence that one is more effective than the other.
Ling Zhi is somewhat of a subject of legends. The Ling Zhi mushroom shape can be found embedded into Chinese palace architecture and art, and there are myths of Ling Zhi mushrooms guarded by snakes and tigers, found only by sages. People even say that Qin Shi-Huang, the first Chinese emperor, was obsessed with immortality and sought after Ling Zhi as part of the secret (I can’t vouch for the academic validity of these tales, but popular lay books on Reishi say such things). Was Ling Zhi really that prized and hard to get back in the day? It seems hard to imagine that Ling Zhi was that rare and coveted, given that wild Ling Zhi is still widely available (albeit expensive) and items like wild ginseng and cordyceps that are virtually unattainable today were much easier to come by in the past.
Whatever the reason, Ling Zhi stands out because it is a very famous Chinese herb, but it hardly ever appears in formulas. I’ve never seen it in a single classical formula. Readers out there, have you ever seen Ling Zhi in a classical formula? Please write in to the comments if you have, I’d love to find some references. Ling Zhi was listed in the earliest materia medica texts, and it was often differentiated into different types. It is in the Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing (“The Divine Husbandman’s Herbal Foundation Canon”), the earliest materia medica ever, and it also appears in Ben Cao Gang Mu (“Herbal Foundation Compendium,” 1590 CE).
Given the prominence of Ling Zhi in Chinese medicine, it is curious that it wasn’t often incorporated into formulas. Nowadays, it is often used based its biomedical indications. Here is what my book Concise Chinese Materia Medica has to say about it:
Nourishes the heart and quiets the spirit: Disquieted heart spirit manifesting in insomnia or fright palpitations.
Líng zhī has a sweet, balanced flavor and enters the heart channel. It supplements heart blood, boosts heart qì, and quiets the spirit. It is used when insufficiency of qì and blood deprives the heart spirit of nourishment. This manifests in disquieted heart spirit, possibly with insomnia, fright palpitations, profuse dreaming, forgetfulness, fatigued body and lassitude of spirit, and poor appetite.
Líng zhī may be used as a single agent or swallowed as a powder. Alternatively, it can be combined with dāng guī (Angelicae Sinensis Radix), bái sháo (Paeoniae Radix Alba), bǎi zǐ rén (Platycladi Semen), suān zǎo rén (Ziziphi Spinosi Semen), and lóng yǎn ròu (Longan Arillus). It is made into many modern preparations such as tablets, syrups, and capsules, which are generally used to treat qì and blood vacuity patterns of insomnia and forgetfulness.
Relieves cough and dispels phlegm: Cough and panting with copious phlegm.
Líng zhī transforms phlegm, relieves cough, and calms panting, and also supplements the lung and boosts qì. It treats patterns of phlegm-rheum, and is particularly effective for cold patterns of cough with copious phlegm and panting.
Supplements qì and nourishes the blood: Vacuity taxation.
Throughout the ages, materia medica texts have noted líng zhī as an important supplementing medicinal. It is used for vacuity taxation with shortness of breath, no thought of food or drink, and reversal cold of the extremities, as well as vexation, agitation, and dryness of the mouth.
Modern Applications: Líng zhī is used to treat angina pectoris, hepatitis, hyperlipidemia, high blood pressure, and leukopenia.
Dosage and Method of Use
3–15 g in decoctions; 1.5–3 g as powder.