Stop Paying for Mulberries

Many of you reading this have bought dried mulberries before -  probably the white variety, imported from Turkey or nearby environs. But for most Americans, we're surrounded by mulberries: both white and red. If you live in the Northeast, you can almost certainly find much fresher, juicier, organic mulberries within a few miles of your house. Mulberries grow on small-to-medium sized trees, especially on the edges of fields or near water.

Thankfully, mulberries as a species are easy to identify. If it looks like a blackberry and is growing on a tree, it's a mulberry. Obviously exercise caution and consult multiple guides, but there are no toxic lookalikes for mulberries.

You'll probably find two varieties: the invasive white mulberry (Morus alba), introduced from the East, and the native red mulberry (Morus rubra). There are other strains in the States, but most mulberries you find are going to be white or red.

Morus rubra  in various stages of ripeness.

Morus rubra in various stages of ripeness.

This is about the only part of mulberry foraging that can get confusing: red mulberries start out green, then turn white, then pinkish, then red, then very dark purple. 

Here you can see three distinct phases of red mulberry ripeness.

Here you can see three distinct phases of red mulberry ripeness.

White mulberries, on the other hand, start out green, then turn white; that's it. If they keep ripening, they sometimes turn a creamier off-white, sometimes even with a tinge of purple-pink flecked through the fruit - as you can see in the photo below. You can tell white mulberries and red mulberries apart by the leaves, but in my opinion it's easier to just look at the fruit. If it's green, don't eat it (unless you want violent puking and hallucinations). If it's white and hard, don't eat it - a hard mulberry is an unripe mulberry. If the fruit is white and soft, and there are no purple or red berries on the same tree, give it a nibble to confirm that you've found a ripe white mulberry. 

A fully-ripe white mulberry

A fully-ripe white mulberry

In my opinion, white mulberries aren't worth gathering if red mulberries are around - whites just don't have the same sweet flavor. I know they sell the white at the store, but if you try both berries fresh, you'll see where I'm coming from.

100 grams of fresh mulberries give you about 9 grams of sugar, 2 grams of fiber, and 43 calories. It's hard to find reliable nutritional information about red mulberries. I would guess that they've got some antioxidants in there, but I just eat them for the joy of it - mulberry pie is too delicious for me to get hung up on nutritional value. 

My favorite way to eat mulberries is to freeze them and blend them with just enough tart cherry or pomegranate juice to make something like a thick sorbet. Top it with fruit and nuts, and you've got something that tastes pretty damn close to an expensive acai bowl. 

Just look at that beauty.

Just look at that beauty.

You'll notice that in the photos of me holding mulberries, the stems are still attached. You can't really remove the stem from a mulberry - it runs deep into the fruit. Sometimes people get a little weird about not wanting to eat the stem and try to pull it off, at which point the mulberry usually just squishes into purple pulp between their fingers. So do yourself a favor and just eat the whole thing, stem and all: I promise it won't be gross. 

There's not a whole lot to say about mulberries. They taste good, they're easy to identify, and they're everywhere. If you live in the Northeast, mulberries are just one more way to add some wild back into your life. 

Foraging Flow

My hands are dyed vibrant shades of magenta from picking mulberries for the past two hours. In another hour or two, I’m going to have a megadose of antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals. Or so I assume. In all honesty, I don’t know anything about the nutritional value of mulberries. I’ll research that later. I just know it feels f***ing incredible to walk into the woods with an empty basket and come back dirty, ecstatic, a little tired, clear-headed, sweaty, bug-bitten, utterly at peace, with a basket full of food in my hand. Real food. Not something that came wrapped in plastic at the store, or was served to me like a fragile prince at a restaurant. Something I stalked and spotted and pulled out of the fragrant earth or popped from a high branch or sliced off the side of a rotten log. Food the way my brain has evolved, for hundreds of millions of years, to understand it and to crave it.

What is it that sets off in our brains when we step into the woods, not just to hike on a trail or watch the birds, but to harvest food?

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Maybe you’ve never done it. In that case, this isn’t going to make sense to you. But every person I’ve ever taken foraging has been skeptical of the whole ordeal, right up until the moment we begin the search. Then they understand. But “understand” is probably the wrong word. I’ll put it this way: when we step into the woods and start looking, something in the deepest parts of their humanity kicks into gear. Suddenly, they’re engaged — following in the footsteps and instincts of the earliest Homo sapiens. My fiancee used to think hunting mushrooms was weird. Now we pull the car over when she spots a good patch.

People talk a lot about “flow state.” It’s that thing that happens when you are totally absorbed in what you’re doing, so much so that the outside world fades into a blur and time seems distorted. You think it’s been 20 minutes, but it’s been an hour. It’s a sign that you’re doing something right.

There are three activities that, time after time, put me into flow state: reading, writing, and foraging. I never feel happier or more at peace than when I lose myself in these pursuits.

When I find a grove of ripe paw-paws and breath in the tropical fragrance, filling my basket full and savoring bite after bite of creamy pulp, here only for a week: that’s flow state.

Or when fat yellow chanterelles are thrusting up through the leaf litter, and I’m walking, scanning, sniffing — I swear you can smell them before you see them sometimes — and I spot a cluster! I drop to my knees and slice each stalk carefully, admiring the weird beauty and the alien coloration and inhaling the incense of mother earth, and wondering at the complexity of mycorrhizal relationships: flow state.

One more. In July, when the wineberries and blackberries and raspberries are weighing down their prickly canes, and I step carefully and reach cautiously into the thorny bramble, filling a five-gallon bucket with ripe fruit as thorns press into my thighs, eating almost as many as I drop in the bucket, listening with happiness as the sound of the dropped fruit changes from a little bouncy bongo beat when they tap the bucket’s bottom to the softest mumble as they pile onto a plump bed of their brothers and sisters: flow state.

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How do you end a rambling, aimless bit of writing like this? With a personal theory that’s as doubtful as it is vague. It starts in the Garden of Eden.

What is it in this myth that spoke to Semitic agriculturalists thousands of years ago and still speaks to us today? I think part of it is the longing we all have, as civilized people, for somewhere quiet and green and cool, somewhere to live simply and in peace.

Adam and Eve were basically foragers. Eden was a garden planted by God, created as the perfect home and refuge for humanity. They didn’t plant, didn’t water, didn’t plow the earth or sweat with labor. They grazed on the abundance around them.

Then the tempting snake comes along. “You will be like gods,” he says, as he offers the knowledge of good and evil. They close their eyes and bite into the only fruit they were never to eat: self-consciousness, let’s call it. In that apocalyptic moment, the sinking of their teeth through the rind and into the unholy flesh, they become fully modern humans. They are cast out of the garden and into society to work and suffer until they die.

I’m not saying we should abandon the concepts of good and evil, or shed our clothes, or walk away from civilization. But I think foraging lets us temporarily forget both time and ourselves, becoming a little less like gods and more like humans; it lets us return — in some sense that I can’t quite define — back to what we left behind in Eden.

Our Own Wild Chamomile

Chamomile is one of our favorite herbs here in the States, valued for generations as a cure for everything from skin problems to insomnia. But what most of us in the US simply refer to as “chamomile” turns out to be two distinct species, Roman/English chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile) and German chamomile (Matricaria retutica). Both, obviously, are Old World varieties. And while we consume these foreign species in massive amounts, most of us are unaware of our own native species of chamomile, Matricaria discoidea.

Matricaria discoidea  flowers lack the white petals typical of other chamomiles. Photo credit: Walter Siegmund

Matricaria discoidea flowers lack the white petals typical of other chamomiles. Photo credit: Walter Siegmund

But if you’re a gardener, or have a lawn, or a stone driveway, or cracks in your pavement, or an empty lot nearby, you probably see Matricaria discoidea all the time. And you might know it by its common name, pineapple weed (a.k.a. disc mayweed). But I think terming this beautiful plant a weed is a tad harsh. It’s a low-growing annual, maxing-out at around a foot tall, with feathery leaves (like other chamomiles) and yellow flowers. And just as you might expect from it’s name, this “weed,” especially its flowers, gives off a beautiful pineapple odor when crushed.

Thinking back, this might have been the first wild food I was ever taught to identify. I found a colossal colony in a gravel patch and was told by my grandmother, who grew up eating groundhogs and eels during the great depression, that I had found wild chamomile. I wasn’t such a fan of the taste back then, but I was happy to provide her with a never-ending supply of the plant.

First off, let’s consider how pineapple weed compares to its better-known relatives, German and English chamomile. Overall, the plant looks very similar with one obvious difference: pineapple weed lacks the white petals that grace the flowers of other kinds of chamomile. Pineapple weed grows low to the ground, as does English chamomile, while German chamomile grows up to two feet in height. The pineapple scent of Matricaria discoidea is unique, while other sorts of chamomile smell like, well… chamomile.

German chamomile - note the similar leaves and flowers (minus the petals).

German chamomile - note the similar leaves and flowers (minus the petals).

Many chamomiles thrive in well-drained, relatively poorer soils. This explains pineapple weed’s tendency to thrust itself out of sidewalk cracks and take over patches of stones. Pineapple weed, in my experience, grows anywhere from very sunny spots to partial shade. It’s one of the first wild herbs to pop up in the spring, and one of the last to finally die back in the fall. Its tolerance of such a range of soil conditions and temperatures makes pineapple weed an easy herb for foragers to find. However, I must admit, I much prefer the flavor of the young springtime flowers to older, late season blooms.  

We in the Northeast have Lewis and Clark to thank for pineapple weed. The plant is actually native in the Northwest, but during their famous expedition, Lewis and Clark “discovered” (Indigenous People knew the plant, of course) Matricaria discoidea, and the eastward spread of the plant began. The plant now grows wild in most of the United States and Canada (Texas, Florida, and a few other southern states excepted).

The research on pineapple weed's medicinal uses is very, very sparse. It's a weed, after all, right? What could it be any good for?

The feathery leaves of pineapple weed resemble the more well-known German and Roman chamomiles. 

The feathery leaves of pineapple weed resemble the more well-known German and Roman chamomiles. 

Anyone searching the web, interested in the medicinal properties of Matricaria discoidea will soon find many references to "an Estonian study." But try as I might, I have not been able to find this study for myself. It's quite possible the study was published in the Estonian language, in which case it would make sense that I would never find it, even if it was freely available online.

This mysterious "Estonian study" supposedly found pineapple weed to be about as effective as German chamomile in relieving smooth muscle spasms while being perfectly safe to consume.

However, it is worthwhile to note that pineapple weed and German/Roman chamomile have long histories of being used to treat many of the same symptoms.

Traditional medicinal uses for the herb are well documented, and seem to often focus on gastrointestinal health. A tea brewed from pineapple weed's fragrant flowers is supposed to help an upset stomach, decrease eye inflammation, ease discomfort associated with menstruation, tame stomach spasms, and soothe sore throats. Here's a fascinating list documenting Native American uses of the plant, including, again, as a tea to help ease stomach pain and menstrual cramps, as an aphrodisiac, and even as a bug repellent.  

So, in lieu of more thorough medicinal research, we might consider it somewhere between possible and likely that pineapple weed can help stomach cramps. With many cultures on different continents, separated by wide oceans, across a span of many years all using the plant for this purpose, it seems probable that they were on to something. And since pineapple weed hasn't been recorded to have any adverse effects, it's at very least safe to try. 

So, how to prepare pineapple weed tea? Take a tablespoon or so of young, fresh flowers and steep in a mug of freshly boiled water for 10-12 minutes. I like to cover the steeping tea to limit the evaporation of oils. This will render a delicious, fruity, floral tea. Dried flowers can be used as well, but I think they lose a good bit of flavor. The leaves, which also have a history of folk-medicinal use, are also perfect for tea in my opinion, but apparently some people don't like the taste. 

This is the time of year when foraging starts to really wind down, and the cravings for spring's first flavorful herbs and greens will soon set in. And to me, the delightful, exuberant taste of pineapple weed is first among those flavors. It bursts onto the scene with it's yellow fruity flowers like a joyful proclamation that summer is right around the corner. So even though it might be too late to taste the best that our own wild chamomile has to offer now... just wait.

Some pineapple weed buds. These were harvested just a few days ago (in November), so they're a little past their prime. 

Some pineapple weed buds. These were harvested just a few days ago (in November), so they're a little past their prime. 

The Potentially Toxic Elderberry Look-Alike

Aralia spinosa, often called devil's walking stick, is commonly confused for the American elderberry. And just one glance at the plant reveals why: Aralia's dense clusters of dark purple berries hanging from vivid burgundy stems look strikingly like the American elder. The two species reach a similar size, thrive in the same environments, and bear fruit at about the same time. Aralia is especially common in the southern half of the East Coast, but its range extends well into New England. Yet while the American elder, Sambucus canadensis, as well as the European Sambucus nigra, are well-researched, time-tested wild medicinals, devil's walking stick has a more complicated story.

These ripe  Aralia spinosa  fruits are looking awfully similar to American elderberries. 

These ripe Aralia spinosa fruits are looking awfully similar to American elderberries. 

So the big question is: was that really elderberry jelly you just ate? If you're starting to feel a little anxious at this point, a word of comfort: ripe Aralia berries are at most mildly toxic. If you eat a few ripe berries raw, you might get an upset stomach. A few more and your stomach might start sending them back. But if you cook the ripe berries, they seem to be safe to consume in normal amounts. I've scoured the internet and a few books, and can't find any instances of people getting sick from ripe, cooked Aralia berries. So you probably don't need to freak out.

Aralia spinosa  sends out its smaller, often smooth branches in a distinctive way.

Aralia spinosa sends out its smaller, often smooth branches in a distinctive way.

But before we get any deeper into the potential risks (and benefits) of consuming Aralia spinosa, lets look at a surefire way to identify it as opposed to Sambucus. The berries do look different, but I wouldn't rely on that. Below is a close-up of Aralia's stem. See those thorns? American elders have no thorns or spines of any kind. As you saw in the previous photo, the smaller branches may be smooth or have very limited thorns. But simply checking the main stalk for thorns will either immediately confirm or rule out Aralia spinosa.

The thicker, woody main stalk of  Aralia spinosa . "Devil's walking stick" indeed. 

The thicker, woody main stalk of Aralia spinosa. "Devil's walking stick" indeed. 

The leaves look exceptionally similar. Immediately below are the leaves of Aralia spinosa; the next picture is the leaves of American elder. They look different enough in these two pictures, but American elder leaves are often closer in color and shape to the first photo. So while it's good to see the similarity in structure, and the trained botanist could easily tell the two apart, I'm personally much more comfortable just looking for thorns.

These leaves belong to  Aralia spinosa,  also known as Hercules' club. 

These leaves belong to Aralia spinosa, also known as Hercules' club. 

These are the leaves of the American elder.

These are the leaves of the American elder.

Now a word about the potential risks and benefits associated with Aralia spinosa. Some Indigenous Americans and early Europeans settlers referred to the plant as "toothache tree," but they valued the plant for much more than just treating toothaches. Today, however, it is rarely considered more than a decorative shrub. And as far as I can tell, there is not a single modern study on any medicinal aspect of Aralia spinosa. In light of this total lack of scientific research, it is at least interesting to look at some of the traditional and folk uses of the plant. Whether or not there is any truth to these uses is questionable.

The famous compendium A Modern Herbal, published by Mrs. M. Grieve in 1931, says that Aralia's fresh bark induces vomiting, but the dried bark acts as a stimulant. She also mentions that a tincture made from the berries is good for tooth pain. In fact of all its purported medical uses, relieving toothaches seems to be the most common I encountered. Another popular one was rheumatism: both Grieve and Benjamin Strobel, in his 1826 work The Medical Properties of the Aralia Spinosa, or Prickly Ash, mention the plant's effectiveness against rheumatism. Strobel mentions its emetic action as well, but considers this rather superfluous. Medicine had a long way to go in the early 19th century, but apparently they thought they had the whole "how-to-make-people-blow-chunks-thing" figured out pretty well.

I also found occasional mentions of the plant treating skin conditions, respiratory problems, and rattlesnake bites, among other things. But as far as peer-reviewed research goes... crickets. 

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The lack of research is a bit surprising to me considering the wealth of folklore surrounding the plant. I think all the old-time references to Aralia inducing vomiting should be taken seriously. It seems pretty well-established that eating parts of the plants other than the ripe cooked berries will effectively induce reverse-digestion. Touching the roots or bark of the plant has also been reported to cause skin reactions in some individuals, but I have not experienced this myself. 

Aralia spinosa is not a plant I really recommend messing with. There's no scientific research to suggest the plant is beneficial, or even totally safe in the long term. I admit that I've made syrup out of curiosity, with zero observable ill-effects, but I wouldn't advise you to do the same. However, knowing how to identify devil's walking stick is critical if you want to gather wild elderberries. 

Autumn Olives - The Invasive Superberry

The autumn olive, Elaeagnus umbellata, gets a lot of hate. The USDA Forest Service gives detailed recommendations on how to poison the plant with diesel fuel, Vanquish, Arsenal AC, and Garlon 4. Some states list it as a noxious weed, and its ability to increase nitrogen levels in the soil has led to problems for native species that thrive in lower-nitrogen environments.

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And at this point, eradication of the plant seems unlikely. The Asian shrub is widespread and naturalized across much of the eastern and central US. Birds and other wildlife enjoy the bright, juicy berries, which means the seeds will continue to spread. This is sort of a shame, because it translates into less habitat for native plums, hawthornes, serviceberries, and hazelnuts, which grow in similar habitats.

But if you can’t beat ‘em, eat ‘em. The autumn olive is a bonafide superberry that is likely growing in a nearby park or meadow, free for the picking, and ready to boost your health with a hefty dose of carotenoids and vitamin A. You might even pick a berry that otherwise would have grown into yet another invasive shrub, so consider eating autumn olives a delicious act of conservation.

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Autumn olive is most notable for its high concentration of lycopene. Lycopene is a well-known carotenoid thought to decrease the risk of prostate, lung, and stomach cancers, decrease LDL (bad) cholesterol, and decrease the risk of heart disease. Americans get their lycopene mostly from tomatoes, which contain about 4.6 mg of lycopene per cup. Cooking tomatoes increases the bioavailability of this lycopene, and canned tomato products such as soup and sauce contain even higher amounts - a cup of tomato soup contains about 26 mg.

Although tomatoes contain high levels of lycopene, they simply can’t compete with autumn olives in this regard. 100 grams of raw fruit boast an average of 38 mg of lycopene, and some samples have tested even higher, all the way up to 54 mg! Autumn olives contain other healthy carotenoids too, such as β-carotene, lutein, and phytoene. It’s also a good source of vitamin C, providing 27.8 mg per 100 grams of fresh fruit. Many non-academic articles report that autumn olives contain other vitamins and minerals, but I couldn’t find any sources to back this claim up. It may be conjecture based on the vitamin content of related species.

You can eat the berries fresh, but the taste is a bit acerbic. The ripest berries are sweeter... but "sweeter" is very relative: they're still pretty sour. Thankfully, if you don’t care too much for the raw fruit, autumn olives make delicious jam, jelly, sauce, fruit leather, and wine. The sour and fruity flavor of autumn olives is similar to pomegranates or tart cherries, so recipes that call for either of those fruits might be worth experimenting with.

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I recently made a nice grilling sauce with autumn olive puree, honey, habanero, and brown sugar. Pairing autumn olive with grilled meat is a good idea not only because the tangy sweetness blends well with the smoky, rich flavors, but also because the fat in the meat magnifies the benefits of the lycopene. It doesn't have to be meat, but if you want to get the most out of autumn olive’s high lycopene content, eat it alongside some fat to help with absorption.

Finding and harvesting autumn olives is not hard. They like to grow along the borders of forests, in abandoned pastures, and along roads, preferring sunny spots and happily taking root in poor soil. Because autumn olives tend to grow in polluted areas (like roadsides and old mining sites) and because they are often targeted aggressively with herbicides, you want to be sure to harvest from safe sources.

The fruits have distinctive silver speckling which helps set them apart from many other red berries ripening this time of year. The toxic bush honeysuckle is one lookalike to be careful of, but with careful examination you really can’t confuse the two. Autumn olives also have unique silver-bottomed, waxy leaves that help with identification. The whole shrub should not be very tall, at most around 20 feet.

Once you've found a safe source of autumn olives, grab a big basket and start picking. Like for so many other wild edibles, a woven basket is the best choice for harvesting autumn olives. Why? As you'll soon discover, the fruits have a tendency to pull off the branch with the pesky little stems they grew on. A basket allows you to shake around the berries, dislodging the stems that then fall through the gaps in the basket. This method doesn't completely eliminate the stems, but it sure helps.  Another way to make sure you don't get stems in your jam is to pluck the berries by rolling them in between your thumb and pointer-finger until they pop free of the branch, not by pulling them. When you roll the berries, they usually roll right off the little stem they grew on, and if they don't, the loosely attached stem gets rolled in your fingers too and falls right off. If you simply pull the berries off, probably 40% bring their annoying stems along for the ride. If you roll them, it seems to be more like 5%. 

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There is a fringe movement to popularize autumn olive consumption in the States. There is every reason to hope that the fruit - usually called autumn berry, in an effort to sound a bit more appealing - does become more appreciated. The plant is naturally resilient, requires virtually no pesticides or fertilizers, and can thrive in a variety of growing conditions. In fact, autumn olives are known to help replenish depleted soil. This means, in theory, that farming organic autumn olives would require relatively little labor while potentially improving the soil conditions. And foraging for autumn olives takes a good amount of seeds out of "circulation" - they are rendered sterile when cooked. There is a lot of potential benefit for the environment if we would start eating more autumn olives. And let's not forget about all that lycopene, either. 

One last thing: don't let toxic bush honeysuckle berries turn you off from foraging for autumn olives. Here's some photos contrasting the two species: 

These are  bush honeysuckle berries . Note the lack of silver speckling and the translucent skin. 

These are bush honeysuckle berries. Note the lack of silver speckling and the translucent skin. 

The underside of the  bush honeysuckle's leaves  are green, not silver like the leaves of autumn olive.

The underside of the bush honeysuckle's leaves are green, not silver like the leaves of autumn olive.

On the left is an autumn olive; at right, a bush honeysuckle berry. 

On the left is an autumn olive; at right, a bush honeysuckle berry. 

Squish a  bush honeysuckle berry , and it oozes off-yellow goo mixed with multiple seeds. 

Squish a bush honeysuckle berry, and it oozes off-yellow goo mixed with multiple seeds. 

An  autumn olive , on the other hand, has red pulp and a single seed. 

An autumn olive, on the other hand, has red pulp and a single seed. 

Medicine Grows on Trees - The Lion's Mane Mushroom

If you’ve tuned in to the health world at all lately, you’ve heard of nootropics. It’s a fancy word for foods or supplements that enhance your brain’s health and function. And if you’re aware of nootropics, you’re probably also aware that there’s a lot of questionable, possibly dangerous supplements out being advertised as Miracle-Gro for your neurons. But you might not know that one of the world’s most powerful, scientifically-backed nootropics is likely growing in the closest forest or park.

 

Some call it lion’s mane. Others, satyr’s beard. In Japan, it’s known as yamabushitake. In laboratories, Hericium erinaceus — Latin for “hedgehog-hedgehog,” in reference to its prickly appearance. This hairy, white, bulbous growth that tastes kinda like seafood and grows in the woods turns out to have potent medicinal properties.

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Identifying a lion’s mane mushroom is as easy as wild mushroom identification gets. They grow on trees, stumps, and logs, and the bright white color of fresh lion’s mane stands out in the forest. Look for their long, toothy structures dangling from a single fleshy core. Lion’s mane mushrooms seem especially prone to quick decay, so many are inedible by the time they’re found. But if you are lucky enough to spot a fresh lion’s mane, you’re in for some delicious ‘shroom. These funky fungi are praised for their excellent taste and unique texture. I recommended frying them up with just a little salt and butter.

But this isn’t an article about the culinary merits of lion’s mane mushroom, as delicious as they may be. I want to take a closer look at its impressive health benefits. What follows is my attempt, as someone with no background in medicine or science, to summarize some of the more compelling studies I’ve found. I did my best to pull out the most interesting information and report it accurately, and the URLs are provided to see each study in full.

 

Lion’s mane is commonly thought to promote brain health, and the science seems to support this reputation. One derivative of lion’s mane is called Erinacine A. When administered orally, it was found to have neuroprotective qualities for mice injected with an MPTP mouse-model of Parkinson’s disease. And in a double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial in Japan, supplementation with lion’s mane mushroom for 16 weeks was found to significantly raise the test scores of older adults suffering from mild cognitive impairment. It is notable that these mental improvements faded just a few weeks after supplementation with lion’s mane was ended.

Nerve growth factor (NGF) is a neuropeptide that plays a critical role in promoting neuronal growth and immune function. Scientists think that Alzheimer’s disease may be due to a lack of NGF in the brain. And here’s the real problem: as of now, it’s very hard to devise a way to deliver NGF to the brain because it cannot cross the blood-brain barrier. But that’s where lion’s mane comes into the equation: the hericenones and erinacines present in lion’s mane are able to cross the blood-brain barrier. And once they cross it, they appear to aid in NGF biosynthesis, making Hericium erinaceus a potential weapon against Alzheimer’s disease. Another study found specific erinacines present in lion’s mane to stimulate NGF synthesis in astroglilial cells (a type of cell present in the brain and spinal cord) with more potency than epinephrine.

In his excellent book The Fungal Pharmacy, Robert Rogers mentions a study in which 100 elderly Japanese patients suffering from a variety of neurodegenerative diseases and nerve injuries were given five grams of lion’s mane a day for six months. Rogers reports that after the six months were up, six in seven patients “demonstrated improvements in perceptual capacities, and all seven had improvements in the Functional Independence Measure” (Rogers, 214).

In a study published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology, two extracts of lion’s mane were used to treat human gastric, colon, and liver cancersin vitro. These in vitro tests showed significant anti-cancer activity. But here’s where it gets wild: the same extracts were administered orally to mice to treat cancerous tumors. These in vivo tests showed that the lion’s mane extracts were more effective than Fluorouracil, a drug used extensively to treat cancer, while being less toxic to the mice. Korean researchers found that lion’s mane contains a previously unknown cerebroside, called cerebroside E, which was shown to inhibit blood-vessel formation in cancerous tumors, while at the same time limiting the negative side-effects of conventional anti-cancer drugs.

As if all of that wasn’t enough, lion’s mane has also been shown to havestrong antioxidant properties, as well as potential anti-inflammatory properties. While none of these findings are considered conclusive science as of yet (relatively few studies have been conducted), lion’s mane is certainly starting to garner more attention from researchers. Hopefully this trend continues.

Although foraging your own is rewarding, collecting and processing enough lion’s mane is not always possible. So if you’re looking to try lion’s mane, but don’t have the ability to collect it yourself (which is certainly the ideal way to get it), I would recommend using the lion’s mane extract offered by Nammex. I have no affiliation whatsoever with them, but their company is the best when it comes to medicinal mushrooms. Unfortunately, Nammex only offers their product at wholesale. Real Mushrooms, however, uses exclusively Nammex product in their powders and capsules, so I would strongly recommend purchasing from them if you want to buy lion’s mane (again, no affiliation). I’m not crazy about supplements, but I take the stuff every day. If you want to taste lion’s mane without finding it yourself, I’ve heard that the fresh mushroom is becoming available at some specialty stores and restaurants, but I’ve never seen it.

If you’re looking to try a safe, wild-sourced nootropic that both traditional medicine and emerging science can agree on, lion’s mane fits the bill.