Medicinal mushrooms are having a moment

Medicnal Mushrooms are having a moment

Garret Kopp is the 22-year-old founder and CEO of Birch Boys in the Adirondacks, where medicinal mushrooms like chaga, pictured, grow in abundance. Like many mushroom purveyors, 2020 was his best year of sales yet.
Garret Kopp is the 22-year-old founder and CEO of Birch Boys in the Adirondacks, where medicinal mushrooms like chaga, pictured, grow in abundance. Like many mushroom purveyors, 2020 was his best year of sales yet.

 

Birch Boys


There are roughly 11,000 named species of mushrooms in North America, but most of us know of three types: the edible kind, the poisonous, and the hallucinogenic.

Increasingly, though, scientific studies show that many edible mushrooms may also have an array of health benefits, and wellness seekers across the country have taken note. According to an industry report in Nutritional Outlook, the pandemic triggered a massive spike in use as people turned to functional fungi for their purported immune-boosting and stress-relieving properties.

Now widely available as powders, pills, tinctures, teas and skin creams, medicinal mushroom supplements have become an over-the-counter hit. In March 2020 alone, sales topped $5 million, a 152% increase over the previous year.

Here in New York, medicinal mushrooms like chaga and reishi grow in abundance in the fertile woodlands and forests of the Catskills and Adirondacks — making local purveyors well-poised for the boom.

John Michelotti, founder of Catskill Fungi and president of the Mid-Hudson Mycological Association, started selling medicinal mushroom extracts at farmer’s markets in 2015. He made them from mushrooms he foraged or grew on his third-generation Catskills farm in Big Indian, NY. “There was no movement back then,” he said. “When people walked up to the booth, they’d say, ‘Mushrooms? Weird. Why?’ It’s only the last two years that it’s really started to catch on. It’s been a big change.”

That change is due in part to the growing awareness of the health benefits long celebrated by Eastern medicine and now supported by research into the natural compounds found in medicinal mushrooms. Compounds in chaga, for instance, have been shown to kill cancer cells selectively and stimulate the immune system, according to recent studies collected by Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

There is even greater acceptance of the medicinal properties of “magic mushrooms.” In Oregon, for instance, mushrooms containing the hallucinogenic compound psilocybin were recently legalized so that mental health professionals could prescribe them to treat depression, anxiety and addiction. Similar bills have been introduced in Vermont, California, D.C. and here in New York.

“It’s mind-blowing; there’s this whole kingdom of life we just ignored or forgot about,” said Garret Kopp, the 22-year-old founder and CEO of Birch Boys, which has a store, lab, and factory in Tupper Lake. Like many mushroom purveyors, 2020 was his best year of sales yet.

The business of medicinal mushroom supplements, which come in the form of powders, pills, tinctures, teas and skin creams, is booming. In March 2020 alone, sales topped $5 million, a 152% increase over the previous year.
The business of medicinal mushroom supplements, which come in the form of powders, pills, tinctures, teas and skin creams, is booming. In March 2020 alone, sales topped $5 million, a 152% increase over the previous year.

 

Matt Stauble

Kopp’s love affair with fungi began at 15 after inadvertently drinking a glass of chaga tea from his grandmother’s fridge. She walked him into the woods where she taught him how to forage for the parasitic fungus. It grows on the trunk of birch trees, appearing as a charred protrusion with a bright orange interior. Kopp was hooked. “Her enthusiasm was contagious,” he said. “I started seeing chaga growing everywhere. I realized it was an opportunity.” He was right. Experts project the market for chaga alone has the potential to grow by $11.31 billion before 2024. 

Birch Boys now sells a whole range of mushroom products, but chaga remains Kopp’s true passion. Rich in polysaccharides, which help turn food into energy, chaga appears to provide a lighter more enduring energy buzz than caffeine. It’s also loaded with antioxidants.

Kopp leases 100,000 acres of private forest in the Adirondacks for the right to harvest mushrooms sustainably there. He has a team of “elite outdoorsman,” including himself, who go mushroom hunting regularly to meet demand. “We live in one of the chaga and reishi epicenters of the world,” Kopp said. The Northeast provides ideal growing conditions for these mushrooms, given the diversity of its trees, the availability of freshwater and the age and vitality of its woodlands. “Chaga has to draw all those beneficial minerals and compounds out of a tree for years,” Kopp explained.

The vast expanse of protected land in upstate New York has kept the forest pristine, another important factor, as the properties of a mushroom depend greatly on its environment. As Michelotti of Catskill Fungi said, “We are what we eat, and fungi are the same. They can upcycle toxins, so it’s important to be cautious and know where your mushrooms are coming from.”

Catskill Fungi founder John Michelotti forages mushrooms like reishi, pictured, for medicinal mushroom extracts he began selling in 2015.
Catskill Fungi founder John Michelotti forages mushrooms like reishi, pictured, for medicinal mushroom extracts he began selling in 2015. “There was no movement back then,” he said. “When people walked up to the booth, they’d say, ‘Mushrooms? Weird. Why?’

 

Catskill Funghi

For Michelotti, Reishi and Lion’s Mane are amongst his biggest sellers. “Reishi is the best overall for balancing,” he said. “People feel a lot more even-keeled. It’s also a good antiviral and antibacterial.” These claims are currently the subject of much research. Lion’s Mane, alternatively, he calls “nature’s nutrient for the neurons,” taken to support brain function.

There are some unknowns related to the health risks of medicinal mushroom use, and figuring out whether a mushroom supplement is safe for personal use is best determined by a professional. Reishi, for instance, is not recommended for those with low blood pressure or who may be taking medications like blood thinners. “Everybody is different,” Michelotti said. “People should be cautious and know where your mushrooms are coming from.”

Michelotti also leads foraging walks and inoculation workshops. Part of that education is instilling the importance of sustainability and teaching his students to never take more than half of what they find. “Mushrooms are the immune system of the forest,” he said. “We’re still understanding the impact we have when foraging.”

For Olga Tzogas of Smugtown Mushrooms in Rochester, we’ve only scratched the surface of where this growing fungophilia might lead. Tzogas previously sold her medicinal mushroom products at Basilica Farm & Flea Spring Market in Hudson, though they are now available online, including the currently sold-out turkey tail, widely studied for its anti-tumor properties.


Tzogas leads mushroom workshops, organizes a number of mycology festivals, and runs fungi-foraging trips abroad, to be resumed when COVID-19 travel restrictions allow. Each time she travels, she brings a mushroom tincture with her to keep her immune system humming. But to her, mushrooms offer more than just medicine.

“We’re learning more about their amazingness all the time, for the ecology of the forests, the planet, and our bodies,” she said.



 

Source: Medicinal mushrooms are having a moment