The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and Its Applications

Polyporus mysticus


Polypore Species


“The delicious aroma of the polyporus of the birch tree (Polyporus betulinus) increases the smoker’s enjoyment, which is why it is mixed into the tobacco.”








Order Poriales (Aphyllophorales):

—Family Polyporaceae (Pore Fungi)

—Family Ganodermataceae (Lacquer Fungi)

—Family Poriaceae

A variety of evidence and numerous hypotheses suggest that there may be at least one as yet unidentified psychoactive polypore. Here, I have given this polypore the nickname Polyporus mysticus. But there is also evidence that well-known polypore species, such as the birch poly-pore and the larch polypore, have psychoactive effects and have found use in shamanic contexts.

The sensational and still somewhat controversial discovery of Ötzi, a 5,300-year-old mummy found in a glacier (known popularly as Glacier Man, Adam of the Alps, Frozen Fritz, and Homo tyrolensis), indicates that polypores may have played a ritual or shamanic role among pre-Germanic peoples (Heim and Nosko 1993; Rätsch 1994). With him, Ötzi carried two dried mushrooms attached to a string. The mushrooms have been identified as either the birch polypore (Piptoporus betulinus [Bull. ex Fr.] Karst. [syn. Polyporus betulinus Karst., Ungulina betulina Pat.]) or the larch polypore (Laricifomes officinalis[Vill. ex Fr.] Kotl. et Pouz. [syn. Polyporus officinalis Fr., Boletus laricis Jacq.]) (cf. silphion). They were initially interpreted as “tinder fungi”:371


The two specimens from the Hauslabjoch were cut from the fruiting body of the birch polypore [Piptoporus betulinus]. The result was very surprising to us, as we had actually assumed that this was tinder material. The birch polypore, however, is not suitable for this purpose, as its tissue is difficult to set afire. We must thus look for the solution of this problem on another level. (Spindler 1993, 132)


Then a sensational press release made its way through the newspapers. A mycologist from Innsbruck, Reinhold Pöder, told the science editor of the weekly newsmagazine Stern that he had found LSD-like substances, i.e., indole alkaloids, in the first of the mushrooms he had studied:


The newest evidence for the shamanic thesis was discovered by Dr. Reinhold Pöder of the University of Innsbruck. . . . The microbiological analysis . . . revealed: the two tree fungi that Ötzi was carrying were not for making fire at all. “The fungi are hallucinogenic,” Dr. Pöder stated over the marble-size pieces from the genera of the larch and birch polypores. Among Ötzi experts, the discovery of this Stone Age relative of LSD is regarded as a minor sensation. (Scheppach 1992, 22)


Following this news, the yellow press (e.g., the Hamburger Morgenpost) stamped Ötzi as a junkie. The psychedelic scene celebrated him as a primordial shaman (Rätsch 1994):


There are several things that suggest that he may have been a shaman . . . , especially the dried pieces of birch polypore that, strung onto a strip of leather, he also carried with him. The latter is a tree fungus that is used for medicinal and spiritual purposes (“spirit bread”) in a number of shamanistic cultures, e.g., among the Haida Indians. The assertion that this tree fungus could contain a hallucinogen, i.e., an inebriating substance (which would fit the shamanic hypothesis without a problem), is plausible but is avoided in the scientific report on the fungal finds. (Scheidt 1992, 100)


The official scientific report on the mushrooms ignored the sensational news of the presence of a “Stone Age LSD” and degenerated into a trivial discussion:


What could have led a person 5,000 years ago to collect birch polypores and tie these to a strip of leather? At this time, it is hardly possible to suggest an appropriate answer to this question. The . . . evidence for the “medicinal and spiritual use of polypores,” however, suggests that the discussions about such a use may be merited. The investigation of the second piece of “tree fungus” may provide additional information. (Pöder et al. 1992, 318)


Later, the head of the Innsbruck research project cautiously wrote:


A few apocryphal places in the literature on this matter have drawn attention to a purported hallucinogenic effect of the birch poly-pore. To date, however, this supposition has not received either medical or pharmaceutical support. Therefore, at the present time, they should not yet be taken into consideration in discussions pertaining to the meaning that the tree fungi had for the man in the ice. (Spindler 1993, 133)


Among the Indians of the Pacific Northwest, polypores were directly related to shamanism. They are said to have been used as a snuff for healing rituals, and shamans are said to have carved the fruiting bodies of Fomitopsis officinalis into the shapes of protective spirits to watch over graves (Blanchette et al. 1992). The Indians of the northwestern coast used birch polypores, which they called “spirit breads,” in shamanic contexts as a trance-inducing snuff (Andrew Weil, pers. comm.).

The larch polypore (Laricifomes officinalis = Fomitopsis officinalis [Vill. ex Fr.] Bond. et Sing.) formerly was made into an elixier de longue vie, “elixir of long life,” together with aloe (Aloe sp.), gentian (Gentiana lutea L.), Levantine saffron (Crocus sativus), rhubarb (Rheum officinale Baill.), and theriac (Chapuis 1985, 111).

In the seventeenth century, Jesuits reported that the Yarimagua Indians of the Peruvian Amazon prepared an inebriating drink from “fungi that grow on fallen trees”:


These appear as reddish, pungent-tasting growths on fallen trees. It was so strong that no man who took three draughts of the brew was able to resist its effects. The fungus was considered to be Psilocybe yungensis Singer and Smith [cf. Psilocybe spp.]. But because gym species are reddish and also settle on compact trunks, they are more likely candidates for this ominous tree fungus. . . . The red tree species was probably a close relative of Gymnopilus purpuratus. (Gartz 1993, 57 f.**)



The Indians of the Pacific Northwest (e.g., the Haida) used the polypore Fomitopsis pinicola for medicinal and shamanic purposes. (Photographed near Seattle, Washington)



The birch polypore (Piptoporus betulinus) was once used as a medicinal drug. It was one of the few objects found with the glacier mummy known as Ötzi. According to a statement by a mycologist from Innsbruck, it was a type of “Stone Age LSD.” The statement was later retracted. (Photographed at Duvenstedter Brook, Hamburg)


“The earth came forth from a tree fungus, ‘as from an egg.’ More precisely: The egg-shaped tree fungus parted in the middle: the upper part ascended and became the heavens, the lower became the earth. From the two halves of alonkok, as the tree fungus was called, came all the things that are visible: the stars, the sun, mountains, rivers, plants, animals, and the ‘primordial mother,’ which was also called alonkok. In a separate egg lay the lightning; this is how the primordial mother came to have fire. She bore two pairs of twins, the first were called ‘Mud Hill’ (Nkombodo) and ‘Great Mountain’ (Odangemeko), the second was Mebere [‘Highest Being’] and his sister.”




(BONIN 1979, 193 f.*)



The polypore Ganoderma lucidum has been identified with the legendary Chinese mushroom of immortality. (From an old Chinese herbal)


Ott (1993, 316*) also considers it possible that this tree fungus was a Gymnopilus purpuratus that thrived on wood (cf. Gymnopilus spp.). But it may also have been a polypore. Ian Watson (1983) has written an outstanding science-fiction novel about an Indian mushroom cult in Amazonia. His description is based upon the Jesuit accounts.

Many travelers and researchers have reported psychoactive mushroom use in the Amazon, often in connection with ayahuasca (Leginger 1981*; McKenna 1989*; McKenna and McKenna 1994*; Ott 1993, 316*). One indication that these reports may indeed be based in truth comes from the Paumarí Indians of central Amazonia, who refer to polypores as badiadimurobuni, “the ear of the spirit” (Pance et al. 1977, 129*).

It was recently discovered that in Amazonia (Ecuador), the powdered fruiting body of a Ganoderma species is mixed with tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) and smoked. According to the descriptions of indigenous shamans, this smoking blend has an ayahuasca-like effect (Paul Stamets, pers. comm.).

The Makai Indians of Paraguay use the fruiting bodies of various polypores (Dedalea elegans Fries, Polyporus guaraniticum Speg., Pycnoporus sanguineus [Fries.] Murr.) as incense to pacify crying children (Arenas 1987, 287*). The Siberian Khanty (= Ostyak) used a mixture of tinder fungus (Fomes fomentarius [Fr. ex L.] Kichx.) and the bark of the silver pine (Picea obovata Ledeb. or Abies sibiricaLedeb.) as a ritual incense when a person had died, burning the incense until the corpse had been removed from the house (Saar 1991, 177**).372 The Khanty also used the polypore Inonotus obliquus (Fr.) Pilát as an incense. They burned the fruiting bodies of the polypore Phellinus nigricans (Fr.) Karst., which thrives on birches (Betula spp.), and mixed the ashes with ground wild tobacco (Nicotiana rustica) to produce a narcotic chewing tobacco (Saar 1991, 178**).

In Alaska, the polypores Fomes igniarius (Fr. ex L.) Kichx. and Fomes fomentarius (Fr. ex L.) Kichx. allegedly are smoked or sniffed in combination with Nicotiana spp. for their narcotic properties (Ott 1978, 234**).

In Chignahuapan (Puebla, Mexico) is a church known as the Iglesia de Neustro Señor del Honguito (Church of Our Lord, the Mushroom). Built especially for the honguito, this church preserves as a relic the fruiting body of a mushroom that is said to bear the mark of the hand of Jesus. This mushroom, which has been identified as Ganoderma lobatum (Schw.) Atk., is believed to have miraculous and healing powers. It has been suggested that this folk church cult may preserve elements of entheogenic mushroom rituals from the pre-Spanish period (Guzmán et al. 1975).

Paul Stamets has suggested that soma may have been a psychoactive polypore that has not yet been discovered and described.

Many ancient Chinese myths and traditions concerning the ling-shih (also ling chih, lingzhi), or the mushroom of immortality, now usually identified mycologically as the lacquer fungus (Ganoderma lucidum [Fr.] Karst.),373suggest that this mushroom has potent psychoactive effects (Camilla 1995a, 1995b; Rätsch 1996). It is said to grow on a mysterious island in the East (probably the South Korean shaman’s island of Chejudo). The effects of this magic mushroom have been described as fantastic:


The Isle of Tsu lies close by, in the eastern sea. It is there that the plant that does not die grows, shaped like a piece of seaweed with leaves that are up to four feet in length. A man who has already been dead for three days will immediately awaken to a new life if he is touched by it. If you eat of it, it will extend your life. . . . When dead bodies lay around on the side of the road, birds like ravens or crows would fly by with the miraculous plant in their beaks, which they laid upon the faces of the corpses. These immediately stood up and became alive once more. (Shih chou chi)


The Taoist alchemists later numbered the lingzhi among a group of “five wondrous fungi of immortality”—corresponding to the five signs of happiness (Imazeki and Wasson 1973, 6**). The mysterious elixir of immortality was prepared from these fungi, which probably included the fly agaric (Amanita muscaria) and other psychedelic magic mushrooms (such as the “nine stemmed, purple-red mushroom”), together with cinnabar and jade. Those recipes that have come down to us have not yet been tested (Michel Strickman, pers. comm.; cf. han-shi).

Ganoderma lucidum has been very well studied but has not yet yielded any evidence indicating any possible psychoactive effects or psychoactive constituents (Laatsch 1992). It does contain bioactive triterpenes and ganodermic acids (Lin et al. 1988).

The Japanese furry polypore Inonotus hispidus (Bull. ex Fr.) Karst. [syn. Polyporus hispidus Bull. ex Fr.], also known as the Japanese laughing mushroom (cf. Gymnopilus spp.), contains hispidin, a substance that is chemically closely related to the kavains (see Piper methysticum) and the longistylines (see Lonchocarpus violaceus) (H. Laatsch, pers. comm., July 1, 1986). Polyporus berkeleyi Fries has been shown to contain the βphenethylaminehordenine, which is also found in many psychoactive cacti (Ariocarpus fissuratusCoryphantha spp.Pelecyphora aselliformisTrichocereus spp.) (Ott 1978, 234**).

One species of polypore, the sulfur fungus (Laetiporus sulphureus [Bull. ex Fr.] Bond et Sing. [syn. Boletus sulphureus Bull., Boletus caudicinus Scop., Cladomeris sulphurea Quél., Polyporus caudicinusKöhl, Polyporus sulphureus Fr.]),374 has become known for having induced strong tryptamine-like hallucinations in at least one clinically documented case (Appleton 1988). Otherwise, it has been said that “used as a snuff, [it] can be described as a weak disinfectant” (Chapius 1985, 111).

“Once an ancient peach tree stood for many years in a marsh in the deep mountains. It eventually became rotten and died. I am a mushroom that sprouted from its trunk. For many years I grew on a tree trunk, becoming larger and larger, until I had truly become an important mushroom. One day a beautiful small bird flew by and sat in the branches of the tree, where it sang with its beautiful chirping voice. Watching it, I at first found it to be simply pretty, but then I felt an urge to eat it. I had such a terribly great desire to eat, eat, eat it that while I was looking at it, I suddenly had eyes and a mouth and gulped it down and swallowed it. . . . With time the tree decayed and crumbled. I broke off from its stump and crawled around, then I grew arms and legs and I could walk.”






Appleton, Richard Edward. 1988. Laetiporus sulphureus causing visual hallucinations and ataxia in a child. Canadian Medical Association Journal 39:48–49.


Barfield, Lawrence, Ebba Koller, and Andreas Lippert. 1992. Der Zeuge aus dem Gletscher: Das Rätsel der frühen Alpen-Europäer. Ed. Alfred Payrleitner. Vienna: Verlag Carl Ueberreuter (Edition Universum).


Blanchette, Robert, Brian D. Compton, Nancy Turner, and Robert L. Gilbertson. 1992. Nineteenth century shaman grave guardians are carved Fomitopsis officinalis sporophores. Mycologia 84 (1): 119–24.


Camilla, Gilberto. 1995a. I funghi allucinogeni in China e in Giappone: Sopravvivenze mitologiche, folkloriche e linguistiche. I. Eleusis 2:10–13.


———. 1995b. I funghi allucinogeni in China e in Giappone: Sopravvivenze mitologiche, folkloriche e linguistiche. II. Eleusis 3:25–28.


Chapuis, Jean-Robert. 1985. Die Verwendung von Pilzen als Arzneimittel (I). Schweizerische Zeitschrift für Pilzkunde 63 (5/6): 110–14.


Gartz, Jochen. 1994. Das Letzte von Ötzi. Yearbook for Ethnomedicine and the Study of Consciousness, 1993 (2): 157–63. Berlin: VWB.


Guzmán, Gastón, R. Gordon Wasson, and Teófilo Herrera. 1975. Una iglesia dedicada al culto de un hongo, “Nuestro Señor del Honguito,” en Chignahuapan, Puebla. Bol. Soc. Mex. Mic. 9:137–47.


Heim, Michael, and Werner Nosko. 1993. Die Öztal-Fälschung: Anatomie einer archäologischen Groteske. Reinbek: Rowohlt.


Laatsch, Hartmut. 1992. Polysaccharide mit Antitumor-Aktivität aus Pilzen. Pharmazie in unserer Zeit 21 (4): 159–66.


Lewinsky-Sträubli, Marianne. 1989. Japanische Dämonen und Gespenster. Munich: Diederichs.


Lin, Lee-Juian, Ming-Shi Shiao, and Sheau-Farn Yeh. 1988. Triterpenes from Ganoderma lucidumPhytochemistry 27 (7): 2269–71.


Mackenzie, Donald. 1994. China and Japan: Myths and legends. London: Studio Editions.


Matsumoto, Kosai. 1979. The mysterious reishi mushroom. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Woodbridge Press.


Pöder, Reinhold, Ursula Peintner, and Thomas Pümpel. 1992. Mykologische Untersuchungen an den Pilz-Beifunden der Gletschermumie vom Hauslabjoch. In Bericht über das Internationale Symposion 1992 in Innsbruck, vol. 1 of Der Mann im Eis (2nd ed.), 313–20. Innsbruck: Veröffentlichungen der Universität Innsbruck 187.


Rätsch, Christian. 1992. Nachwort: Sternstunde der Entheogeneologie? In Das Tor zum inneren Raum, ed. C. Rätsch, 257–60. Südergellersen: Verlag Bruno Martin.


———. 1994. Ötzis Pilze in Literaturzitaten. Yearbook for Ethnomedicine and the Study of Consciousness, 1993 (2): 157–62. Berlin: VWB


———. 1996. Lingzhi: Der Pilz der Unsterblichkeit. Natürlich 16 (3): 22–24.


Scheidt, Jürgen V. 1992. Der Zufall setzt ein Zeichen. Esotera 12/92: 96–101.


Scheppach, Joseph. 1992. Was uns der Gletschermann erzählt. Stern, no. 29 (July 9, 1992): 10–22.


Spindler, Konrad, et al. 1993. Der Mann im Eis: Die Ötztaler Mumie verrät die Geheimnisse der Steinzeit. Munich: C. Bertelsmann Verlag.


Watson, Ian. 1983. Das Babel-Syndrom. Munich: Heyne.


Willard, Terry. 1990. Reishi mushroom: Herb of spiritual potency and medical wonder. Issaquah, Wash.: Sylvan Press.