The American mycologist Paul Stamets has described agarikon as “a deep reservoir of pharmacologically active agents.” Known by the Latin binomial of Fomitopsis officianalis, this mushroom lives for up to 80 years. Its fruiting bodies feature a chalky texture, grow up to one meter tall, and can weigh as much as 10kg. These woody giants grow as parasites on the side of conifer trees and are found growing across the Northern Hemisphere, from North America and Europe to the Pacific coast of Siberia.
Stamets has done more than most to pull agarikon into the limelight. He’s spoken of the impressive medicinal qualities of the mushroom, including its antiviral capabilities. But he’s also pointed out something equally as vital—the endangered status of the fungus.
Humans have used agarikon for thousands of years to treat an array of ailments, and we’ve done a good job of pushing it to the brink. It appears on the list of 33 endangered fungal species in Europe and is considered under threat across the world as a member of The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
You’ve likely heard of the importance of biodiversity. The rich variety of life on the planet helps to sustain ecosystems. Now, Stamets has helped to popularize the term “mycodiversity” that speaks to the importance of preserving fungal species for their function in nature, and as a source of powerful medicinal compounds for humans.
As loggers continue to decimate the ancient old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest—a habitat that agarikon calls home—Stamets is working hard to find, clone, and culture specimens and rescue them from destruction. So far, he’s secured around 65 strains.
But we’re on the verge of losing one million species in the next decade as we live through the Anthropocene, so why should we care so much about agarikon? Well, this mushroom harbours molecules that could help to protect us against increasingly common chronic diseases, as well as threatening pathogens.
A Historically Spiritual Tool
Human cultures have revered agarikon for thousands of years. The Greek physician and philosopher Dioscorides titled the fungus “elixirium ad longam vitam”, meaning “the elixir of long life. The ancient Greeks and Romans used the mushroom largely as a treatment for tuberculosis. The ancient Arabic physician Ahwazi also recognised agarikon as potent medicine and harnessed the raw mushroom to purge patients of black bile that was believed to cause cancer. Alongside other medicinal mushrooms, such as chaga, people in Eastern Europe also used the agarikon to treat health issues including cancer, asthma, night sweats, and battle wounds.
Traditional medicine systems across the world used agarikon in attempts to treat several conditions and diseases, including:
- Insect bites
- Muscular diseases
- Bladder problems
Indigenous peoples of the Northwest Coast region of North America referred to agarikon as the “bread of ghosts.” Not only did they value it as a medicinal mushroom, but they assigned it spiritual significance. Shamans of these regions used the fungus in societal rituals and performed arts to enhance the mushroom’s supernatural abilities. Following the death of a shaman, carved agarikon mushrooms would serve as guardians perched at the head of the grave.
Agarikon Through the Lens of Modern Science
Agarikon clearly held an important place in many cultures of old, and the mushroom must have demonstrated healing efficacy to have gained this status across different parts of the world. Researchers are keen to understand exactly how medicinal mushrooms such as agarikon achieve these results. So far, they’ve uncovered a host of interesting molecules from the fungus, including polysaccharides (complex carbohydrates), flavonoids, and terpenoids.
As well as identifying some of these key molecules, researchers have put agarikon extracts and isolated compounds to the test in the lab against diseases and models of pathology. Check out how they performed below.
Molecules isolated from agarikon mushrooms have shown promising antimicrobial properties in test tube studies. These compounds demonstrate inhibitory effects against a long list of infectious microbes, including forms of salmonella, staphylococcus, and candida.
The United States Defense Department also screened agarikon extracts for antiviral properties during the Bioshield BioDefense program. The extracts showed promise against orthopoxviruses (a group that includes smallpox and cowpox) and were the only natural products tested that demonstrated antipox activity.
A variety of medicinal mushrooms show promising anticancer potential. Alongside turkey tail, chaga, and reishi, agarikon produces chemicals that are believed to influence cancer. Terpenoids are found all throughout nature, and plants and fungi tend to manufacture them as a defence against predators. Terpenoids found in agarikon have been observed to kill human cancer cells in test tubes.
Can Agarikon Benefit the Nervous System?
Medicinal mushrooms are gaining recognition for their ability to benefit the nervous system. Species such as lion’s mane might even help to combat Alzheimer’s disease. Bioactive compounds in agarikon might help to protect the brain and nervous system against ageing and disease.
Flavonoids from the fungus appear to protect the brain of ageing mice against oxidative stress, where the terpenoids show promise as a treatment for stroke. The antiviral effects of the mushroom could also protect against nervous system issues that arise following herpes and hepatitis infections.
How to Use Agarikon Mushrooms
Agarikon mushrooms are hard, woody, and chalky. They’re not exactly something you’d put in a soup. Furthermore, much like chaga and cordyceps, agarikon mushrooms are under threat and are becoming increasingly rare in nature. For this reason, many companies offer cultivated preparations so that we can leave natural specimens to fulfil their function within the ecosystem.
If you choose to incorporate cultivated agarikon into your supplement regimen, simply follow the consumption instructions provided.
Luke Sumpter is a professional health writer that specializes in cannabis, medicinal mushrooms, and human physiology. After becoming fascinated by herbal medicine, he dedicated his Bachelor of Science dissertation to the emergence of the endocannabinoid system in musculoskeletal conditions. You can connect with him @Luke_A_Sumpter.