The Su Wen identifies mushrooms as ‘spiritual herbs’ 芝, 神草也.* 神農本草經 Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing, The Divine Husbandman’s Classic of the Materia Medica, describes lingzhi this way:
赤芝, 味苦，平。主胸中結，益心氣，補中，增智慧，不忘。久食，輕身、不老、延年、神仙。 一名丹芝。
‘Red mushroom: Bitter in taste, neutral in temperature, red mushrooms treat tightness in the center of the chest, benefit central qi, augment intelligence, and boost memory. When taken long term, they lighten the body, retard aging, prolong life, enlighten the spirit, and bestow immortality. The red mushroom is also known as the elixir mushroom.’
The Ben Cao was probably written between 300 BC and 200 AD. Tao Hong-Jing reconstructed the text based on several differing versions around 500 AD. Tao was a Daoist; he classified the 365 herbs in the text into three grades in accordance with Daoist principles:
- Superior herbs that ‘nourish destiny in accordance with heaven: these are not toxic, and can be taken for the long term without harm’ 主養命以應天，無毒。多服、久服不傷人;
- Middle grade herbs that ‘nourish the constitution in accordance with humanity: these vary in toxicity, and the duration of their use should be determined accordingly’ 主養性以應人。無毒、有毒，斟酌其宜; and
- Inferior herbs that ‘treat diseases in accordance with earth: these are mostly toxic, and should not be taken for the long term’ 主治病以應地。多毒，不可久服.
Mushrooms are superior herbs that have a spiritual affinity. They are classified according to their colors, but all of them share this property: ‘when taken over the long term, they lighten the body, retard aging, prolong life, enlighten the spirit, and bestow immortality’: 久食，輕身、不老、延年、神仙.
They can be taken for the long term because they are not toxic. They increase strength and vitality so the body feels light. They retard aging and prolong life by building health and warding off disease. These are the physical benefits. ‘Enlightening the spirit’ and ‘bestowing immortality’ (神仙), however, describes a state of spiritual transcendence. It is not immortality in the sense of never dying, but is the attainment of enlightenment achieved by Daoist Immortals (仙, or xian).
Lingzhi has three growth stages: fruiting body, spore, and mycelium. Fruiting bodies are the actual mushrooms. Mature fruiting bodies release spores that are borne by the wind. If they land on a habitable substrate, such as a dead tree trunk, they develop branching, thread-like hyphae called a mycelium. When two compatible mycelia join together, they develop a secondary hyphae that can absorb nutrients from the substrate and eventually give rise to new fruiting bodies. Lingzhi spores are microscopic (5-8 microns in diameter) and invisible to the human eye. Since there are no apparent root systems, the appearance and disappearance of the mushrooms seem magical. This may have prompted the ancient sages to intuit their spiritual properties. The appearance of lingzhi mushrooms was regarded as an auspicious omen, signaling harmony between heaven and earth, and an enduring period of peace and prosperity for man.
Lingzhi is rich in tripterpenes and polysaccharides. Many studies show that it can benefit the circulatory, nervous, and immune systems to prevent and support healing from such diseases as hepatitis, rheumatoid arthritis, and cancer.
*An alternative interpretation is that 芝 (zhi) only refers to 靈芝 (Lingzhi), and not to mushrooms in general. The Ben Cao describes altogether six 芝, according to their colors. Five of them – red, black, white, green, and yellow – are in accordance to the five elements. The sixth is purple. Interestingly, ganoderma does come in all those color varieties.