After a rainstorm, have you ever noticed how the earth seems quiet and still? It breathes dewy mist while sunshine begins to poke through the rustled trees. And just then, when you peek into the grass, you may see tiny spores of mushrooms beginning to sprout. This magic is a reminder that mushrooms connect us to threads of knowledge going back to our ancestors, and just as it turns out, human and fungi DNA closely resemble one another. I believe this is one of the many reasons interest in medicinal mycology has blossomed. In recent years, one such functional mushroom, maitake, has garnered widespread popularity for its delectable culinary flavors and medicinal properties.
What is Maitake Mushroom?
Maitake mushroom, or Grifola frondosa, has been used for centuries to protect the immune system, while also being favored by mushroom connoisseurs for its umami taste. Maitake is a soft polypore, bracket fungus that is indigenous to temperate hardwood forests in Japan, China and northeastern North America. They feed upon the dead roots of aging oaks, elms, and occasionally maple trees. Maitake grows in clusters and can achieve enormous sizes. They have traditionally been of such value that locations of patches were kept as family secrets, only passed down generationally.
The name maitake directly translates to “dancing mushroom” in Japanese. In the United States, maitake is commonly known as “hen of the woods”, with its fruiting body resembling fluffed chicken feathers. Christopher Hobbs poetically described maitake as “fan-shaped fruiting bodies [that] overlap like butterflies in a wild dance.” In Italy, the species is known as signorina, or “the unmarried woman.” Less frequently, maitake is called sheep’s head, ram’s head or the king of mushrooms. As its latin name suggests, some scholars argue that grifola comes from the word griffin, referring to the mythological beast with the head and wings of an eagle and body of a lion. Frondosa translates to leaf-like. Put together, the name gives way to its appearance of feathered, leafy polypores.
Traditionally, in Japan, maitake was worth its weight in silver when found. It was treasured as a potent tonic that was used to boost the immune system, increase vitality, and prevent cancer.
According to historical lore, the name maitake came about after Buddhists discovered the fruiting mushroom emerging from the forest floor. They thus danced with joy upon discovering it. Other origin stories suggest that maitake’s name derived from the samurai who stumbled upon the mushroom while trekking on long arduous missions deep in the mountains of Japan. They also were said to have danced upon unearthing the mushroom’s healing benefits.
Wild maitake was traditionally a highly prized and guarded secret treasure. Japanese collectors would only forage alone and never divulge the location of clusters, cutting hatch marks on trees to keep other hunters away. It wasn’t until the late 1970s that this form of harvesting ceased, as maitake cultivation techniques were devised and commercial production began by the ton.
Commonly Reported Benefits & Effects
Modulate immune cells
Maitake is known for powerful immunomodulating properties (Svagelj et al. 2012). This mushroom contains polysaccharides that regulate the immune system and enhance the activity of T cells, B cells, and macrophages (Mayell, 2001). Maitake’s beta-glucans also act as immunostimulating and protective compounds. It has been found that 100 grams of fresh maitake contains more than 2,000 IU of vitamin D2, an essential nutrient for immune system health (Argric, 2011).
Stabilize blood pressure
Naturally occurring antioxidants isolated from maitake, including phenols, flavonoids, ascorbic acid, and α-tocopherol, have been shown to be effective against free radicals in the body that cause hypertension and cardiovascular disease (Nanba et al. 1988). Maitake’s SX-fraction compounds also counteract high cholesterol and excess fat (Talpur et al. 2001).
May kill cancer cells
There are ample studies that suggest that maitake possesses anticancer and antitumor benefits (Nanda et al. 2005). Researchers have found that the mushroom can cause apoptosis of cancer cells. The D-Fraction polysaccharide in the fruiting body has been shown to have the ability to enhance certain immune system cells that work together to attack tumor cells (Wu et al. 2006). The mycelium have been found to produce an array of low molecular weight sugars and exopolysaccharides, of which activate immune responses to kill lung and breast cancer cells (Lin, 2011).
Maitake mushroom has been shown to demonstrate protection against diabetes. Research has studied its ability to inhibit alpha-glucosidase (Chen et al, 2015). By inhibiting this enzyme, glucose absorption levels slow down in the body. Maitake contains naturally occurring alpha-glucosidase inhibitors, making it the quintessential glucose modulator. The mushroom also works as an adaptogen, balancing endocrine and adrenal function (Mayell, 2001).
There is little information on the toxicity of maitake. However, if mushroom allergies are present, it could cause rash, swelling or breathing difficulties. Please consult your healthcare practitioner or doctor before consuming.
Maitake Mushrooms Extract
The best way to combat angiogenesis is through a single hot-water extraction or double extraction with alcohol soluble constituents of maitake mushroom. The beta-glucans are not soluble in only alcohol.
Maitake Mushroom Powder Supplement
Another way to consume maitake is through an extracted powdered formula that has been sealed in supplement form. It is recommended to take 3 to 7 grams per day in extract, soup or supplement.
Maitake Mushroom Soup
Maitake can be eaten fresh or dried. It is used in many culinary dishes across the world. Traditionally, the Japanese would enjoy maitake in a miso soup. One can sip the broth or eat the entire soup of this simple medicinal decoction.
Where to Buy Maitake Mushrooms
Maitake can be found fresh or dried in gourmet grocery stores throughout the United States, Europe and Asia. If you are unable to locate locally, the online market is filled with grow kits and packaged mushrooms. The Alchemist’s Kitchen sells a large range of maitake extracts, powders, and supplements, as well as infused Elderberry syrup products. Some of our trusted sources are from Forest Folk Fungi, AnimaMundi and Host Defense. Check out our full list of mushroom products here.
How to cook Maitake Mushrooms?
Maitake are rich in flavor, boasting hearty, buttery and earthy notes. Most importantly, maitake provides umami flavor through their content of L-glutamate. Because of this, they are absolutely delicious in almost any savory dish such as in omelettes, pastas, risottos or simply sautéed with olive oil, butter or garlic and onions.
How to grow maitake mushrooms?
If it is your first time growing Maitake, it would be smart to consider getting a growing kit. They are readily available online and offer a convenient and easy option for beginners.
How to prepare maitake mushrooms?
If you do not wish to eat them fresh, you can dry them in the food dehydrator and enjoy them in broths and soups all year round. They are very high in protein, B vitamins, potassium, and fiber!
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- Stamets, P., 2013. Maitake: The Magnificent ‘Dancing’ Mushroom. Huffpost. <https://www.huffpost.com/entry/maitake-mushroom_b_2908332>.