The Unique and Versatile Lion's Mane Mushroom

The term "lion's mane" sounds like something you'd find roaming the plains of the Serengeti. Yet did you know it's also the common name for an edible mushroom with promising medicinal properties?

Yet Hericium erinaceus is one of the more interesting looking types of mushrooms out there. In place of the traditional mushroom cap is a large clump of teeth, which are spine-like structures a few millimeters long.

The purpose of these teeth is to manufacture and release spores, the "seeds" of a mushroom that allow the fungal organism to reproduce. Many different types of mushrooms have teeth instead of a cap, but lion's mane and other members of the Hericium genus are some of the most recognizable.

These mushrooms provide more than just a visual treat. They're considered by many to be a gourmet edible, with a wonderfully chewy texture and taste slightly reminiscent of seafood.

The lion's mane mushroom - Hericium erinaceusLion's mane has also been the subject of more and more medical studies in the past decade. They appear to have nerve regenerating properties, stimulating nerve growth and aiding those with cognitive impairments. Yesterday's funny looking mushroom may be part of tomorrow's dementia treatment.

Intrigued? There's a lot more to learn about Hericium erinaceus. We'll start with some basic facts, and move on its role as a medicinal mushroom. I'll end the article with how to cook and eat them, including a simple recipe. Perfect for a gourmet meal, or just a simple meat substitute!

 

Lion's Mane Facts

  • This species has many names including the bearded tooth mushroom and the pom pom mushroom. It is sometimes called the hedgehog mushroom, although that name usually refers to a different species altogether, Hydnum repandum.
  • All species of Hericium are considered saprotrophs, meaning they feed on dead material. Hericium erinaceus is also a parasite, meaning it attacks and kills living trees.
  • They're found in late summer to fall on dead or dying hardwood trees, especially oak and beech. They grow in North America, China, Japan, and Europe.
  • This doesn't look like your typical mushroom. It has no real cap and no stem. Instead it sports long spines (greater than 1 cm) coming out from a single clump.
  • Their color is mainly white, although they become brown or yellow with age. Their spore print is white as well.
  • This is not a common species of mushroom, so finding one may be a rare treat. They grow higher up on trees rather than at the base, which means that they're also often missed during a mushroom hunt.
  • There are several species in the Hericium genus that are referred to as "lion's mane" in North America. This article is specifically about Hericium erinaceus, but you may also hear about these types of mushrooms:

Hericium abietis - The coral fungus, found on the West Coast of North America.

Hericium americanum - The bear's head tooth fungus, found in Eastern North America. (I've found these high up on oak trees).

Hericium collaroidesHericium coralloides - The comb tooth fungus, found all over North America (right).

 

Hericium abietis and coralloides(right) have more branch-like spines. The americanum species can be difficult to tell from the erinaceus species. Know that it's important to learn mushroom identification hands-on from an expert. Never eat anything that you haven't identified correctly before!

 

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Medicinal Lion's Mane - A Dementia Treatment?

 

Lion's mane has many uses beyond just looking really cool. This strange specimen is considered a medicinal mushroom.

Traditional Chinese Medicine has long prescribed it for stomach problems and cancer of the digestive organs. Modern research suggests that these mushrooms also have antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, as well as supporting the immune system against certain types of cancers.

The lion's mane mushroom is a possible dementia treatmentYet the most exciting discovery about this mushroom is its ability to possibly heal nerve tissues. It contains molecules known as hericenones and erinacines, two compounds suspected to stimulate nerve growth factor (NGF).

NGF is a protein necessary for nerve cells that send information to the brain to function properly. Lack of NGF is considered a cause of certain neurological problems such as Alzheimer's and dementia.

Unfortunately, this protein can't pass through the blood-brain barrier. So treating dementia by injecting NGF into the body isn't going to work.

This is where lion's mane comes in! Due to their low molecular weight, the nerve regenerating compounds in this mushroom do pass the blood-brain barrier. This allows them to stimulate and repair nerve cells in the brain itself, increasing cognitive function.

Healing neurons and myelin (the sheath surrounding nerves) may be useful in treating:

  • Dementia
  • Alzheimer's
  • Muscular Dystrophy
  • Senility
  • Parkinson's Disease
  • Other Neurological Conditions

I say possibly as more research still needs to be done before we call this a concrete dementia treatment. Many initial studies seem very promising, including this one done in Japan on people with mild cognitive impairment.

If you want to start supplementing with then it's important to buy from a reputable company. There's a lot of hype surrounding Hericium erinaceus, so research carefully before purchasing. If you have any experience about using this mushroom medicinally feel free to share your story here.

f you're overwhelmed by the world of supplements, I recommend either Full Spectrum Lion's Mane Mushroom 500 mg 60 Caps or Host Defense Lion's Mane Capsules, 60 count . The Swanson brand is a 30 day supply at 500 mg/day, and the Host Defense brand is a 30 day supply at grams/day. The Host Defense brand is also organic, although it's almost three times the price. Still, the company is run by famed mycologist Paul Stamets and they make excellent, high-quality products.

If you can afford it, the Host Defense brand is excellent. If not, you may still see results from the cheaper Swanson brand.

 

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An Edible Mushroom

 

Besides supplementation, it's easy to gain the medicinal benefits of lion's mane. These are edible mushrooms, and quite tasty too! They're great alone or in a dish with other ingredients.

When cooked, lion's mane has a seafood-like flavor without being too overpowering. Many liken it to the taste of shrimp or lobster. Thus if you love the taste of seafood but you're a vegetarian or allergic to shellfish, try spicing up your next meal with lion's mane.

An easy lion's mane mushroom recipeThe trick to preparing all edible mushrooms in the Hericium genus is to cook them slooowly. These are tough and watery mushrooms that need longer periods of heat to cook off moisture and make them chewy. The extra cooking time is well worth it.

For the best flavor, heat a pan to medium-high to high heat with a little oil. Add the mushrooms, cover the pan, and cook until the teeth are browned. Keep checking on them and doing taste tests until you've reached your desired crispiness.

Don't bother adding spices and butter until you're closer to the end of the cooking time. These mushrooms give off a lot of water at first so save your delicious additives until the end.

Their high moisture content also makes drying a real pain. The best way to preserve lion's mane is to sauté and then freeze them for later. See the article on freezing mushrooms for more information.

Ready to try some Hericium cooking?!? With such a great texture and ability to absorb other flavors, I certainly think these unique mushrooms are worth a try at least once. Here's a simple recipe to get you started:

 

Lion's Mane Mushroom Recipe

 

Here's a simple lion's mane mushroom recipe that's delicious on pasta or crackers. The butter and cream are a little heavy, but you can substitute olive oil and milk for a lighter mushroom recipe.

This cooks down to gravy, although you can omit all the liquids if you like and still have a delicious topping for pasta, tofu, or other dish.

 

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 lb lion's mane mushrooms, cleaned and thinly sliced
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 2 cups light cream
  • 1/2 yellow onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 3 tablespoons flour

Melt one tablespoon of butter in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add the mushrooms and cook until they seem to have given off most of their liquid.

Throw in the onions and garlic and cook until the onions have softened and the mushrooms are brown.

Add the flour and the remainder of the butter. Cook several more minutes, stirring frequently to mix the melting butter with everything else.

Slowly pour in the cream. Turn down the heat and allow the mixture to simmer until it has reached your desired consistency.

Serve on top of pasta, rice, or crackers. Delicious!

 

Hopefully this article has brought you a new appreciation for these unusual mushrooms. They're so much fun to find and examine. So the next time you're on a mushroom hunt, remember that it never hurts to look up!

 

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The first 3 pictures were taken by Lebrac and are from Wikipedia under the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 License.

The last picture is by Властарь and is from Wikipedia under the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 License.