|Sam Donato, New Jersey mushroom hunter
(Photo © 2015 M. B. Moss)
Recently, I was on a site visit to the ProCure Proton Beam Therapy center in Somerset, NJ, when I took time out for a walk in that town’s magnificent Colonial Park. On one of the rambling paths through the woods my wife and I almost literally bumped into a local man. We got to talking and he identified himself as Sam Donato. He was now a published author and musician, but for most of his life had made his living as a truck driver and construction worker.
My wife admired and commented on his corncob pipe. It turned out that not only his pipe, but his tobacco was homemade, in the latter case, grown and cured in central New Jersey! Sam informed us that he was out hunting for mushrooms, and one in particular, the “hen of the woods.” You can usually find them, he told us, growing at the base of oak trees between September and November.
I know “hen of the woods” well. Otherwise known as maitake (Grifola frondosa or Grifola umbellata, it is a mushroom of importance in complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). Like many mushrooms, it has both immune-stimulating and anti-cancer properties. It is also said to help control high blood pressure. Sam was unaware of these medicinal uses, but simply enjoyed the delicious taste of them.
We eventually went our separate ways, but about half an hour later, our trails looped around and we encountered him once again crossing our path. He informed us that he had found a large maitake at the base of an oak tree. He took us to his car and revealed this ten pound fungus, which he was about to take home and sautée in butter. It was indeed a hen of the woods. My wife took this photo of him in the parking lot of Colonial Park, the proud discoverer of one of this elusive but famous mushroom.
The word “maitake” means “dancing mushroom” in Japanese. This is because ordinary Japanese people would dance for joy whenever they found one, since the Emperor offered its weight in silver for anyone who found one. Nowadays, you can buy extracts as a food supplement (such as Grifola’s Maitake D fraction) or even sometimes find fresh ones in the supermarket.
There is a considerable amount of research on maitake mushrooms—285 PubMed-indexed articles. Of these, 82 concern cancer. The most recent comes from Kobe University—for historical and cultural reasons, most of the research on maitake originates in Japan. It is generally conceded that maitake is an “immune stimulant.” But what exactly does this mean? The Kobe scientists showed that the soluble beta-glucan-rich “D fraction” of maitake “acts as a potent immunotherapeutic agent” and specifically that (together with another immune stimulant) iincreased dendritic cell activity against cancer, “resulting in tumor regression via an antitumor T helper cell 1-type response.”
“Our findings provide the basis for a potent antitumor therapy using a novel combination of immunologic agents for future clinical immunotherapy studies in patients,” Yuki Masuda and colleagues wrote. This confirms what has been known for decades—that mushrooms such as maitake, shiitake, Trametes versicolor, etc. contain immune modulating compounds. Now that immunotherapy is popular in oncology, one would expect increased attention paid to these time-honored and virtually non-toxic methods of boosting immunity.