Cornell University

Agarikon

Long before the Pacific Northwest region of North America was associated with coffee-drinkers and lumberjacks, the Indigenous Peoples of the Northwest Coast, including the Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian and others, were the sole inhabitants of region. Spiritual life, the supernatural, and a respect for the environment and its resources were integral parts of daily life for these Indigenous Peoples of the region. In particular, one large tree-dwelling mushroom, Fomitopsis officinalis, was revered for its medicinal and spiritual properties. This species was tool of the local healer and spiritual figure in the communities, the Shaman. When a Shaman died, Fomitopsis officinalis, in various carved forms and figures, were placed at the head of the grave to act as guardians, protecting the shaman during his “long death sleep” (1).

Mycologist Paul Stamets with big AgarikonFomitopsis officinalis (=Laricifomes officinalis) is a hefty, bracket fungus and can be found on the trunks of coniferous hosts, where it causes a brown-rot (3). 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 (2). 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 (5).

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 (1,4).

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 F. 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 (1). 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.

Watch a 2008 Agarikon hunt with Paul Stamets (Founder and President of Fungi Perfecti), filmed by Bill Weaver:

Note: For more information, including wonderful pictures of the grave guardian artifacts (not reproduced here for copyright reasons) please consult the work of Blanchette et al. 1992 and their paper entitled, “Nineteenth century shaman grave guardians are carved Fomitopsis officinalis sporophores”, found in the journal Mycologia.

References:

  1. Blanchette R.A., Compton B.D., Turner N.J., Gilbertson R.L. 1992. Nineteenth century shaman grave guardians are carved Fomitopsis officinalis sporophores. Mycologia. 84: 119-124. [an interesting read! --Ed.]
  2. Grzywnowicz K. 2001. Medicinal mushrooms in Polish folk medicine. Internation Journal of Medicinal Mushrooms. 3: 154.
  3. Holsten E.H., Hennon P.E., Werner R.A. 1985. Insects and diseases of Alaskan forests. USDA Alaskan Region Report No 181. U.S. Forest Service.
  4. Jonaitis A. 1986. Art of the northern Tlingit. University of Washington Press, Seattle.
  5. Stamets P. 2006. Antiviral activity from medicinal mushrooms. U.S. Patent 2006/0171958 A1, filed March 22, 2006.

Image Sources:

Paul Stamets, American mycologist, holding an Agarikon mushroom (Fomitopsis officinalis) Dusty Yao-Stamets, March 28, 2008 via Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons License.

If you can’t see the embedded video by Bill Weaver above, check it out on YouTube.

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Most people don't pay much attention to fungi, which include things like mushrooms, molds, yeasts, and mildews. Here at Cornell we think they're pretty fascinating. In fact, even the most disgusting foot diseases and moldy strawberries are dear to our hearts. We'd like to talk to you about fungi, so that like us, you too can tell gross stories at the dinner table. Afterwards, maybe you'll notice some things you would have overlooked before, and we think this could be good for the planet.

Kathie T. Hodge, Editor

Beneath Notice, our book of borescopic mycology.

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