The lingzhi mushroom or reishi mushroom (Traditional Chinese: ; pinyin: língzhi; Japanese: reishi; Vietnamese: linh chi; literally: “supernatural mushroom”) encompasses several fungal species of the genus Ganoderma, and most commonly refers to the closely related species, Ganoderma lucidum and Ganoderma tsugae. Ganoderma lucidum enjoys special veneration in East Asia, where it has been used as a medicinal mushroom in traditional Chinese medicine for more than 2,000 years, making it one of the oldest mushrooms known to have been used medicinally. Because of lingzhi’s presumed health benefits and apparent absence of side-effects, it has attained a reputation in the East as the ultimate herbal substance. Lingzhi is listed in the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia and Therapeutic Compendium.
Chemical analysis has revealed that Ganoderma spores contain high levels of anti-cancer compounds. Laboratory studies in the US and China have shown that spore extracts can cause cancer cells to round up and die, inhibit tumor-induced blood supply development and prevent tumor growth. Studies have also shown that some of the extracts interfere with cell division and stimulate the immune system directed to cancer cells and some can cause cancer cells to differentiate into other cells with immunotherapeutic activities.
Lingzhi may possess anti-tumor, immunomodulatory and immunotherapeutic activities, supported by studies on polysaccharides, terpenes, and other bioactive compounds isolated from fruiting bodies and mycelia of this fungus (reviewed by R. R. Paterson and Lindequist et al.). It has also been found to inhibit platelet aggregation, and to lower blood pressure (via inhibition of angiotensin-converting enzyme), cholesterol, and blood sugar.
Laboratory studies have shown anti-neoplastic effects of fungal extracts or isolated compounds against some types of cancer, including epithelial ovarian cancer. In an animal model, Ganoderma has been reported to prevent cancer metastasis, with potency comparable to Lentinan from Shiitake mushrooms.
The mechanisms by which G. lucidum may affect cancer are unknown and they may target different stages of cancer development: inhibition of angiogenesis (formation of new, tumor-induced blood vessels, created to supply nutrients to the tumor) mediated by cytokines, cytoxicity, inhibiting migration of the cancer cells and metastasis, and inducing and enhancing apoptosis of tumor cells. Nevertheless, G. lucidum extracts are already used in commercial pharmaceuticals such as MC-S for suppressing cancer cell proliferation and migration.
Additional studies indicate that ganoderic acid can help to strengthen the liver against liver injury by viruses and other toxic agents in mice, suggesting a potential benefit of this compound in the prevention of liver diseases in humans, and Ganoderma-derived sterols inhibit lanosterol 14a-demethylase activity in the biosynthesis of cholesterol . Ganoderma compounds inhibit 5-alpha reductase activity in the biosynthesis of dihydrotestosterone.
Besides effects on mammalian physiology, Ganoderma is reported to have anti-bacterial and anti-viral activities. Ganoderma is reported to exhibit direct anti-viral with the following viruses; HSV-1, HSV-2, influenza virus, vesicular stomatitis. Ganoderma mushrooms are reported to exhibit direct anti-microbial properties with the following organisms; Aspergillus niger, Bacillus cereus, Candida albicans, and Escherichia coli.
Lingzhi is a polypore mushroom that is soft (when fresh), corky, and flat, with a conspicuous red-varnished, kidney-shaped cap and, depending on specimen age, white to dull brown pores underneath. It lacks gills on its underside and releases its spores through fine pores, leading to its morphological classification as a polypore.
Ganoderma lucidum generally occurs in two growth forms, one, found in North America, is sessile and rather large with only a small or no stalk, while the other is smaller and has a long, narrow stalk, and is found mainly in the tropics. However, many growth forms exist that are intermediate to the two types, or even exhibit very unusual morphologies, raising the possibility that they are separate species. Environmental conditions also play a substantial role in the different morphological characteristics lingzhi can exhibit. For example, elevated carbon dioxide levels result in stem elongation in lingzhi. Other forms show “antlers’, without a cap and these may be affected by carbon dioxide levels as well.
The Chinese classics first used zhi during the Warring States Period (475-221 BCE) and lingzhi during the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE).
The word zhi ? occurs approximately 100 times in classical texts.Occurrences in early Chinese histories, such as the (91 BCE) Shiji “Records of the Grand Historian” and (82 CE) Hanshu “Book of Han”, predominantly refer to the “mushroom of immortality; elixir of life”. They record that fangshi “masters of esoterica; alchemists; magicians”, supposedly followers of Zou Yan (305-240 BCE), claimed to know secret locations like Mount Penglai where the magic zhi mushroom grew. Some sinologists propose that the mythical zhi ? derived from Indian legends about soma that reached China around the 3rd century BCE. Fangshi courtiers convinced Qin and Han emperors, most notably Qin Shi Huang (r. 221-210 BCE) and Emperor Wu of Han (r. 141-87 BCE), to dispatch large expeditions (e.g., Xu Fu in 219 BCE) seeking the zhi plant of immortality, but none produced tangible results. Zhi occurrences in other classical texts often refer to an edible fungi. The Liji “Record of Ritual” lists zhi “lichens” as a type of condiment. The Chuci “Songs of the South” metaphorically mentions, “The holy herb is weeded out”. The Huainanzi “Philosophers of Huainan” records a zizhi ?? “purple mushroom” aphorism, “The zhi fungus grows on mountains, but it cannot grow on barren boulders.”
The word lingzhi ?? was first recorded in a fu ? “rhapsody; prose-poem” by the Han dynasty polymath Zhang Heng (CE 78–139). His Xijing fu ??? “Western Metropolis Rhapsody” description of Emperor Wu of Han’s (104 BCE) Jianzhang Palace parallels lingzhi with shijun ?? “rock mushroom”: “Raising huge breakers, lifting waves, That drenched the stone mushrooms on the high bank, And soaked the magic fungus on vermeil boughs.” The commentary by Xue Zong (d. 237) notes these fungi were eaten as drugs of immortality.
The (ca. 1st-2nd century CE) Shennong bencao jing “Divine Farmer’s Classic of Pharmaceutics” classifies zhi into six color categories, each of which is believed to benefit the qi “life force” in a different part of the body: qingzhi ?? “green mushroom” for liver, chizhi ?? “red mushroom” for heart, huangzhi ?? “yellow mushroom” for spleen, baizhi ?? “white mushroom” for lung, heizhi “black mushroom” ?? for kidney, and zizhi ?? “purple mushroom” for essence. Commentators identify this red chizhi (or danzhi ?? “cinnabar mushroom”) as the lingzhi.
Chi Zhi (Ganoderma Rubra) is bitter and balanced. It mainly treats binding in the chest, boosts the heart qi, supplements the center, sharpens the wits, and [causes people] not to forget [i.e., improves the memory]. Protracted taking may make the body light, prevent senility, and prolong life so as to make one an immortal. Its other name is Dan Zhi (Cinnabar Ganoderma). It grows in mountains and valleys.
While Chinese texts have recorded medicinal uses of lingzhi for more than 2,000 years, a few sources erroneously claim more than 4,000 years. Modern scholarship neither accepts the historicity of Shennong “Divine Farmer” (legendary inventor of agriculture, traditionally r. 2737-2697 BCE) nor that he wrote the Shennong bencao jing.
The (ca. 320 CE) Baopuzi, written by the Jin Dynasty Daoist scholar Ge Hong, has the first classical discussion of zhi. Based upon no-longer extant texts, Ge distinguishes five categories of zhi, each with 120 varieties: shizhi ?? “stone zhi”, muzhi ?? “wood zhi”, caozhi ?? “plant zhi”, rouzhi ?? “flesh zhi”, and junzhi ?? “mushroom zhi. For example, the “mushroom zhi”.
Tiny excresences. These grow deep in the mountains, at the base of large trees or beside springs. They may resemble buildings, palanquins and horses, dragon and tigers, human beings, or flying birds. They may be any of the five colors. They too number 120 for which there exist illustrations. All are to be sought and gathered while using Yu’s Pace [a Daoist ritual walk], and they are to be cut with a bone knife. When dried in the shade, powdered, and taken by the inch-square spoonful, they produce geniehood. Those of the intermediate class confer several thousands of years, and those of the lowest type a thousand years of life.
Pregadio concludes, “While there may be no better term than “mushrooms” or “excresences” to refer to them, and even though Ge Hong states that they “are not different from natural mushrooms (ziran zhi ???) (Baopuzi 16.287)”, the zhi pertain to an intermediate dimension between mundane and transcendent reality.”
The (1596) Bencao Gangmu (“Compendium of Materia Medica”) has a zhi ? category that includes six types of zhi (calling the green, red, yellow, white, black, and purple ones from the Shennong bencao jing the liuzhi ?? “six mushrooms”) and sixteen other fungi, mushrooms, and lichens (e.g., mu’er ?? “wood ear” ” Cloud ear fungus; Auricularia auricula-judae”). The author Li Shizhen classified these six differently colored zhi as xiancao ?? “immortality herbs”, and described the effects of chizhi “red mushroom”:
It positively affects the life-energy, or Qi of the heart, repairing the chest area and benefiting those with a knotted and tight chest. Taken over a long period of time, agility of the body will not cease, and the years are lengthened to those of the Immortal Fairies.
Stuart and Smith’s classic study of Chinese herbology describes the zhi.
? (Chih) is defined in the classics as the plant of immortality, and it is therefore always considered to be a felicitous one. It is said to absorb the earthy vapors and to leave a heavenly atmosphere. For this reason it is called ?? (Ling-chih.) It is large and of a branched form, and probably represents Clavaria or Sparassis. Its form is likened to that of coral.
The Bencao Gangmu does not list lingzhi as a variety of zhi, but as an alternate name for the shi’er ?? “stone ear” “Umbilicaria esculenta” lichen. According to Stuart and Smith,
[The ?? Shih-erh is] edible, and has all of the good qualities of the ? (Chih), being also used in the treatment of gravel, and being said to benefit virility. It is specially used in hemorrhage from the bowels and prolapse of the rectum. While the name of this would indicate that it was one of the Auriculariales, the fact that the name ?? (Ling-chih) is also given to it might place it among the Clavariaceae.
Chinese pharmaceutical handbooks on zhi mushrooms were the first illustrated publications in the history of mycology. The historian of Chinese science Joseph Needham discussed a no-longer extant Liang Dynasty (502-587) illustrated text called Zhong Shenzhi ??? “On the Planting and Cultivation of Magic Mushrooms”.
The pictures of mushrooms in particular must have been an extremely early landmark in the history of mycology, which was a late-developing science in the West. The title of [this book] shows that fungi of some kind were being regularly cultivated – hardly as food, with that special designation, more probably medicinal, conceivably hallucinogenic.”
The (1444) Ming Dynasty edition Daozang “Daoist canon” contains the Taishang lingbao zhicao pin ??????? “Classifications of the Most High Divine Treasure Mushroom Plant”, which categorizes 127 varieties of zhi. A (1598) Ming reprint includes woodblock pictures.
In Chinese art, the lingzhi symbolizes good health and long life, as depicted in the imperial Forbidden City and Summer Palace. It was a talisman for good luck in the traditional culture of China, and the goddess of healing Guanyin is sometimes depicted holding a lingzhi mushroom.
Names for the lingzhi fungus have a two thousand year history. The Chinese term lingzhi ?? was first recorded in the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 CE). Petter Adolf Karsten named the genus Ganoderma in 1881.
The lingzhi’s botanical names have Greek and Latin roots. The generic epithet Ganoderma derives from the Greek ganos ?a??? “brightness; sheen”, hence “shining” and derma de?µa “skin”. The specific epithet lucidum is Latin for “shining” and tsugae for “hemlock” (from Japanese Tsuga ?).
There are multiple species of lingzhi, scientifically known to be within the Ganoderma lucidum species complex and mycologists are still researching the differences among species within this complex.
Chinese language lingzhi compounds ling ? “spirit, spiritual; soul; miraculous; sacred; divine; mysterious; efficacious; effective” (cf. Lingyan Temple) and zhi ? “(traditional) plant of longevity; fungus; mushroom; excrescence”. Fabrizio Pregadio explains, “The term zhi, which has no equivalent in Western languages, refers to a variety of super mundane substances often described as plants, fungi, or “excrescences”.” Zhi occurs in other Chinese plant names such as zhima ?? “sesame”, and was anciently used a phonetic loan character for zhi ? “Angelica iris”. Chinese differentiates Ganoderma species between chizhi ?? “red mushroom” G. lucidum and zizhi ?? “purple mushroom” G. japonicum.
Lingzhi ??has several synonyms. Ruicao ?? “auspicious plant” (with rui ? “auspicious; felicitous omen” and the suffix cao “plant; herb”) is the oldest; the (ca. 3rd century BCE) Erya dictionary defines qiu ? (interpreted as a miscopy of jun ? “mushroom”) as zhi ? “mushroom” and the commentary of Guo Pu (276-324) says, “The [zhi] flowers three times in one year. It is a [ruicao] felicitous plant.” Other Chinese names for Ganoderma include ruizhi ?? “auspicious mushroom”, shenzhi ?? “divine mushroom” (with shen “spirit; god’ supernatural; divine”), mulingzhi ??? (with “tree; wood”), xiancao ?? “immortality plant” (with xian “(Daoism) transcendent; immortal; wizard”), and lingzhicao ??? or zhicao ?? “mushroom plant”.
Since both Chinese ling and zhi have multiple meanings, lingzhi has diverse English translations. Renditions include “[zhi] possessed of soul power”, “herb of spiritual potency” or “mushroom of immortality”, “numinous mushroom”, “divine mushroom”, “divine fungus”, “magic fungus”, and “Marvelous Fungus”.
Japanese language reishi ?? is a Sino-Japanese loanword from lingzhi. This modern Japanese kanji ? is the shinjitai “new character form” for the kyujitai “old character form” ?.
Reishi synonyms divide between Sino-Japanese borrowings and native Japanese coinages. Sinitic loanwords include literary terms such as zuiso ?? (from ruicao) “auspicious plant” and senso ?? (from xiaocao) “immortality plant”. A common native Japanese name is mannentake ??? “10,000 year mushroom”. The Japanese writing system uses shi or shiba ? for “grass; lawn; turf” and take or kinoko ? for “mushroom” (e.g., shiitake). Other Japanese terms for reishi include kadodetake ??? “departure mushroom”, hijiridake ?? “sage mushroom”, and magoshakushi ??? “grandchild ladle”.
English lingzhi or ling chih (sometimes misspelled “ling chi” from French EFEO Chinese transcription) is a Chinese loanword. The Oxford English Dictionary gives Chinese “líng divine + zhi fungus” as the origin of ling chih or lingzhi, and defines, “The fungus Ganoderma lucidum, believed in China to confer longevity and used as a symbol of this on Chinese ceramic ware.” The OED notes the earliest recorded usage of the Wade-Giles romanization ling chih in 1904, and of the Pinyin lingzhi in 1980. In addition to the transliterated loanword, English names include “glossy ganoderma” and “shiny polyporus”.