About a thousand feet up above the Columbia river Gorge, tall hemlocks and cedars stretch to the
sky and show the power of resiliency. Only a hundred years before, loggers cut down this forest filled with ancient trees. You can still see the stumps of these ancient old growths. And yet only a hundred years later, the forest has repopulated with tall conifers. The land regenerated after the shocking trauma of a clear cut and if left to grow will become an old growth again in a couple hundred years.
In this beautiful stretch of land, the red belted conk mushroom stands as the sentinels of the forest- growing from decaying and rotted hemlocks. These are the alchemists, turning rotting and decaying wood lignin into their cell walls, extracting the dead material of the trees and turning it back into life. Intertwining filaments of mycelium spread throughout these hemlocks and create the substrate for a number of conks to sprout from the old trees. These conks then grow year after year, a new fresh white layer that becomes a ring. Some of these mushrooms last only a few years and some grow to a ripe old age of 20-40 years. These are the massive conks that are astonishing when we find them.
In the early fall they emit a spray of spore from their underbelly that is carried on the wind to look for new clasping spots where new red belted conks might find purchase and a new life cycle can begin. The spore and the mushroom itself also make for food for forest creatures. Red Belted Conks are alchemists at turning death into life and this power extends to their medicinal virtues. Like other conks (Reishi, Artist’s conk), they carry medicinal polysaccharides and anti-tumoral constituents that can literally tag and help remove malignant and necrotic tissue from our body. Just as they act as alchemists in the forest, they can act as alchemists for humans too.
Let’s take a closer look.
Red Belted Conk has the latin name Fomitopsis pinicola. Native people often would carry this mushroom to help light fires and I have personally experienced this when my friend tried to dry some of the polypore in the oven and it caught on fire. It is called red belted conk because it often carries a reddish ring on the outside. Juvenile RBCs look fleshy with a lot of white while older conks appear grey and are quite hard. Like other polypores, it carries innumerable tubules on the underside which emit spores in the early fall for reproduction. Unlike other annual mushrooms such as the local Reishi (Ganoderma oregonense), Red Belted Conk is a perennial that can persist for decades. For that reason we should be cautious about its overharvest. Even though it is often quite abundant in a Hemlock forest, it plays an important role in providing habitat for small woodland creatures and food for insects and small creatures. One RBC can be enough medicine for years for one person.
Generally RBCs grow on Hemlocks (Tsuga heterophylla) but sometimes grow on Sitka Spruces. They should be gathered from dead trees and not Hemlocks that are still living so as to not to damage the living Hemlock. They come off pretty easily by simply rocking the mushroom back and forth until it naturally detaches. Juvenile mushrooms are about 3-9 inches in diameter while an old RBC might grow to 2 feet wide. It is best to wait for the new growth of an exterior ring to develop in the summer and then wait until after sporing in the late summer before gathering an RBC. My favorite time to gather is in late September to early November.
Once gathered, an RBC should be processed soon. That means taking it home and cutting it lengthwise into 1/4 to 1/2 inch “bacon strips.” If you wait for too long the mushroom will get dry and then be really hard to cut. I have worked with older specimens that required an electric saw to process. Younger specimens are easier to manage.
There are a variety of thoughts about how to best process medicinal mushroom conks and I will state my preference- mainly gathered through my conversations with expert medicinal mushroom expert Anna Sitkoff. Please take a look at her numerous blog posts about medicinal mushrooms at reishiandrosesbotanicals.com, an absolute treasure chest of information about medicinal mycology.
I first cut the mushroom into strips and then will blend it in a vitamix with just enough 95% alcohol (everclear) to cover. After blending it into fine chunks I will then let it sit for a day. In this way the important aromatic terpenes are gathered. After 24 hours, strain out the alcohol and take the marc (the mushroom itself) and decoct it in water to cover for 24 hours. That simply means simmer it in hot water. This will extract the essential beta-glucans polysaccharides that are so important medicinally. There is some controversy here where some people believe the initial alcohol infusion will denature or reduce the medicinal properties of the polysacharides. Anna disagrees with this point and I leave it to the reader to decide.
After decocting the mushroom, add the original infused alcohol to the decoction and the mushroom in even parts. If the water extraction is a larger volume than the alcohol, reduce the decocted water by simmering until it is the same measurement as the infused alcohol. The original alcohol has absorbed some of the water from the mushroom and should be far less potent in the order of about 60 percent alcohol. When added in even parts to the decocted mushroom you should end up with about a preparation that is about 30 percent alcohol- plenty enough to keep it shelf stable without going bad. Then allow the mixture of water and alcohol extraction to sit for several weeks, shaking it daily to help the infusion process. At the end you will have a nice dual extraction. You may also add honey to taste- I often add a half cup to a quart of extraction to make it more palatable.
Like many shelf conks mushrooms, RBC is a powerhouse of medicinally active constituents. But in order to extract those constituents, one needs to do both a hot water and a alcohol based extraction. This is needed to break down the hard chitin layer of the mushroom. Hot water extracts the supremely important beta glucans polysacharides. These polysaccharides are primarily known for their immunomodulating properties. They work in a variety of ways such as increasing macrophages and natural killer cells. Alcohol is needed to gather constituents such as the important triterpenes. RBC carries a variety of other chemical constituents such as ergosterol, trametenolic acid, lanosterol. inotodiol and adenosine.
Medicinal Actions and Energetics
Common Name: Red Belted Conk, Red Belted Polypore
Latin: Fomitopsis pinicola
Range: Common to the temperate Northern hemisphere in rainforests
Parts Used: Whole fruiting body. The newly formed outer crust holds the most medicinal triterpenes. Not only can it be used to make a double extraction (with both water and alcohol), the mushroom can also be applied externally (especially the fresh outer layer) as a styptic. It can also be used as fire starter and the dried mushroom can be powdered to be used in incense making as a replacement for charcoal in cones.
Taste/Energetics: Bitter, cooling
Properties: Styptic, Immunomodulatory, Anti-tumoral, stomachic, hepatic detoxifier, anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory, anti-diabetic, anti-histaminic, circulatory stimulant, emetic in high doses
Actions: Regulates blood sugar, improves immune system function, helpful for rheumatoid arthritis, improves digestive function, absorption and elimination, improves hepatic function, reduces systemic inflammation, reduces menstrual cramping and pain, reduces digestive inflammation/ulcers, increases neutrophil count, systemic tonic, reduces headaches, anti-tumoral, stops bleeding for topical wounds, traditional for fevers and chills
Dosage: To truly understand dosage its key to weigh the original mushroom. Lets go through an example. A one pound/16 ounce mushroom usually can be extracted in a quart of alcohol and water. A quart contains 32 ounces. I suggest about one ounce of extraction a day- or one tablespoon in the morning and one in the evening. So that one pound mushroom should theoretically last you for 32 days.
Each ounce of extraction carries 1/2 ounce of mushroom medicine- or about 15 grams. That means if you take two tablespoons of extraction a day you would receive about 15 grams of mushroom. A lot of companies will sell products with far less offered per day. I believe we should be taking quite a bit more for a full dose but I leave that for the reader to decide.
This article written by Jon Keyes, Licensed Professional Counselor and herbalist. For more articles like this, please go to www.Hearthsidehealing.com. You can also find me at the Facebook group Herbs for Mental Health.
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