Artist’s Conk. People actually do create art on it. More on this momentarily. But first… A conk is a shelf
fungus. “Shelf” because the fruiting body (aka. the reproductive bits) sticks straight out of the wood in which the fungus grows. A large Artist’s Conk can resemble a personal bench, but if you try to sit on it….not so much. Reflecting this, its Japanese name — kofuki-saru-no-koshikake — means “Powder-Covered Monkey’s Bench” (1). (The “powder” part referrs to the fact that the spores often wind up on top of the conk because of electrostatic interactions. ) In the case of Artist’s Conk, the wood in question would mainly be dead or dying here in the Rockies, though it’s occasionally found on conifers here.
Artist’s Conk, Ganoderma applanatum, is a hard, woody conk (I use a hatchet to process it!) that’s relatively common in temperate forests around the globe. The related Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) is more famous as medicine in the West than is Artist’s Conk; however, the medicinal properties of Artist’s Conk have been recognized and valued for millennia in Asia. Aside from “Artist’s Conk” and “Powder-Covered Monkey’s Bench”, other colorful common names include Bear Bread, Red Mother Fungus, Ancient Spirit Plant, and — wait for it — Flesh-Colored Ancient Life Source Mushroom.
Speaking of names, the genus name “Ganoderma” means “shiny skin”, reflecting the shiny upper surface of Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum). In contrast, the top of Artist’s Conk is a matte brown. Lest you think that Artist’s Conk is less flashy than Reishi, you should know that can draw on the underside of Artist’s Conk…hence the name. (So, neener neener neener, Reishi!) The bright white spore-releasing surface on the bottom of Artist’s Conk (see photo 1) turns brown upon scratching it, as exemplified by my less-than-impressive renditioning of Milo-the-Dog on a dried out conk (photo 2). Along these lines, mushroom expert Michael Kuo states on his site www.mushroomexpert.com: “My own attempts at Ganoderma art…have not been very beautiful—unless you call abusive woodland notes for my mushrooming buddies “beautiful.”” (2). You can see such abusive notes along with some elaborate examples of Artist’s Conk art in mushroom expert David Arora’s book “All that the Rain Brings and More”.
Here in the Rockies, Artist’s Conk is found from 5,500 to 9,000 feet, often, but not always, on dead or dying Aspens. It’s a saprophytic fungus, meaning that it “eats” organic matter, in this case, decaying wood. In doing so, Artist’s Conk is an important recycler of dead trees back into the soil. I used to think it was weird that I would mainly see the conk on upright stumps with the roots still in the ground, in contrast to seeing Red Belted Conk (Fomitopsis schrenkii) mainly on downed logs. But I recently stumbled upon an old research paper noting that Artist’s Conk tends to “eat” the wood near the base of a tree and even eats the roots (3), so I’m not as crazy as I thought. In terms of what’s up with Red Belted Conk…dunno at this point.
More on what Artist’s Conk looks like… The baby conk starts out as a rubbery, white blob on the side of a stump, like a terrestrial barnacle (photo 3). Eventually, the upper surface of the conk develops into a matte, cinnamon- to chocolate milk-brown, with the bottom of the conk and the new growth at the outer edge of the conk a rather bright white. The conk is perennial and may grow for many years. Much like a tree’s rings, there are growth ridges on the top of the conk, each representing annual growth (photo 4). I’ve seen Artist’s Conks in the San Juan Mountains that were over a foot across, and there are photos in various mushroom guides showing even larger ones. The largest Artist’s Conks I’ve encountered were over 12 inches across; though there there are photos in mushroom books of some that are quite a big larger. Artist’s Conk will grow around obstacles, such as stones or saplings (photo 5). An Artist’s Conk that I’ve moved with me some 5 times over the years (kind of a good luck charm) had a small stone incorporated into it that finally fell out this year.
Artist’s Conk as Food?!?!?
Good luck with that. Unless your teeth and jaw are as strong as a silverback gorilla’s, in which case Artist’s Conk would be a treat, as primatologist Dian Fossey observed: “Still another special food (for the gorillas) is bracket fungus (Ganoderma applanatum)… The shelflike projection is difficult to break free, so younger animals often have to wrap their arms and legs awkwardly around a trunk and content themselves by only gnawing at the delicacy. Older animals who succeed in breaking the fungus loose have been observed carrying it several hundred feet from its source, all the while guarding it possessively from more dominant individuals’ attempts to take it away. Both the scarcity of the fungus and the gorillas’ liking of it cause many intragroup squabbles, a number of which are settled by the silverback, who simply takes the item of contention for himself.” (4). For us wimpier primates, the conk is used in Asia as a powder, tea, or as a ferment with onions and lemon to add an umami flavor to recipes (1).
Conk medicine: When & where
Artist’s Conk has been used medicinally for thousands of years, and its use spans multiple continents, from Asia to Africa to North America. Other “polypore” mushrooms have been used in Europe historically (5), and I would guess that Artist’s Conk was among them given its prevalence in temperate forests. But, with the influence of Christianity in Europe, medicinal use of fungi was discredited: “…fungi were banned from the world of good spirits and displaced into the world of devil and superstition”, possibly as far back as the early medieval period, (5) resulting in the loss of information. It would be challenging to comprehensively cover the mind-boggling extent of uses in an article of this length, so I’m not even going to try. Instead, I’ll hit on some of the highlights here and save the “full on” treatment of the topic for the book of Rocky Mountain mushrooms I’m slowly cranking out.
Contemporary herbalists continue to employ Artist’s Conk (myself included). I first learned about it from Autumn Summers, Karen Aguiar, Terry Jensen in mushroom classes at the California School of Herbal Studies. Other herb folk (“mushroomists”?) who work with it, write about it, and talk about it include Christopher Hobbs, Michael Vertolli, Anna Sitkoff, Robert Rogers, just to name a handful. A quick online search will bring you to info from them on this handy conk.
Conk medicine: Qualities in Traditional Chinese Medicine
Artist’s Conk is considered cooling in TCM (6). (In perfumery, I find that Artist’s Conk adds a cool, earthy note to blends.) It’s used to resolve Heat (7), which can manifest physically in various parts and emotionally as well. Headache, bad breath, chest pain, anger, irritability, and some types of insomnia are several manifestations of Heat, and Artist’s Conk has been used to ease all of these over the centuries.
The taste of a botanical is an important indicator as to what it “does”. Artist’s Conk is somewhat bitter. The bitter taste moves Qi — commonly translated as “energy” — downward in the body. This may manifest, for example, as better elimination via the bowel or kidneys. Energetically-speaking, this downwards movement may contribute to the sense of “grounding” that Artist’s Conk promotes. Don’t take my word for it. Try the following experiment to get a sense of this. Sit quietly for a couple minutes, then take a drop of Artist’s Conk tincture (or double extract) and notice what you feel. Repeat this with Echinacea tincture. Compare the 2 experiences. “Bitters” also stimulate production of digestive juices and enzymes, improving the digestive process through complicated nervous system and hormonal actions along the digestive tract from the mouth, down.
Along with the bitterness, Artist’s Conk also is also mildly sweet in taste. By “sweet”, I don’t mean like sugar. It’s a more subtle sweetness. Sweet tasting botanicals are generally tonic in action: Gently nourishing and fortifying the body over time. This is especially useful for folks coming off of a long or strong illness, dealing with prolonged stress, recovering from overwork, or suffering from other sources of weakness and debility.
Artist’s Conk has long been a valued Qi tonic. It helps build energy rather than conferring an empty, non-sustainable buzz like caffeine does. Overusing caffeine is like writing checks on overdrawn account, while taking Artist’s Conk regularly is like making deposits into the account. The sweet taste contributes to this through the nourishing properties of “full” types of sweetness (meaning, not sugar, which is considered “empty” sweetness). The bitter taste contributes to this by promoting better digestion, nutrient assimilation, and waste elimination.
The bitterness of Artist’s Conk is due in significant part to chemicals called triterpenes, which are extractable by alcohol. The mild sweetness of Artist’s Conk is due to fungal polysaccharides, which largely dissolve in water. This means that a tincture will taste more bitter, and a decoction (strong tea) will taste sweeter, relatively speaking. A double extract, containing both preparations, will be both bitter and sweet: the best of both worlds!
Conk Medicine: A small sampling of additional uses
Anyone who’s a mushroom geek will have correctly surmised that Artist’s Conk benefits the immune system. Mushroom polysaccharides and other constituents promote healthy, balanced immune system function: Helping, for example, to bolster resistance to infection while reducing aberrant immune reactions such as allergies and chronic inflammation. It’s quite a complicated dance between the mushroom and the immune system. For instance, multiple Artist’s Conk components may block inflammatory damage to the body, including polysaccharides (8, 9), terpenoid molecules (10-12), and other compounds. Such effects may be behind traditional uses as a liver and kidney protectant, for cardiovascular health, and for cancer.
Artist’s Conk also supports respiratory system health. Interestingly, I was taught not to use tonics (such as Reishi) during acute cold or flu. The idea in Traditional Chinese Medicine is that a tonic such as Reishi will drive the pathogenic factor (in this case, a virus) deeper into the body. That said, Artist’s Conk, despite being a tonic, has a history of use variously in Asia, Africa, and North America for cold and flu, for coughing, and for more chronic issues such as TB and bronchitis. I have used it successfully at the first sign of respiratory crud when it was the only thing I had on hand at the moment.
Diabetes, obesity, and gout are a few of the metabolic indications for in Artist’s Conk based on traditions from China, India, Nigeria, Cameroon, and elsewhere around the globe. Preclinical studies (and 1 small human study) are in line with this, showing a reduction in blood sugar and HB1AC levels in response to various preparations of Artist’s Conk (13, 14). The traditional use of Artist’s Conk in Nigeria for obesity may be tied at least in part to adipose (fat) cell development based on cell culture-based studies showing reduced lipid accumulation in the presence of an Artist’s Conk extract (15).
Gout is a painful disorder related to excess uric acid, the sharp crystals of which accumulate in joints (especially in the big toe). Reflecting the traditional use for gout are preclinical studies showing that various Artist’s Conk preparations reduce hyperurecemia (excess uric acid in the blood) (16-18).
One last nifty use for Artist’s Conk is for poor blood oxygenation and altitude sickness. I like it in formulas for those of us living at high elevation who need a bit of help. And by “last nifty use”, I mean in this article, specifically. There are a gazillion other medicinal uses to get into that I’ll get to in the book-in-progress on Rocky Mountain medicinal mushrooms.
Some notes on sustainability
What is being harvested for medicine is the reproductive part of the fungus, and not the living ‘individual’ itself. In other words, you’re not killing the fungus by harvesting the conk. That said, if Dr. Oz decides to feature it on his show and enough people bag conk after conk after conk to take home, this could reduce the reproductive potential of the fungus. Canadian herbalist Michael Vertolli noted that he’s not been seeing as much Artist’s Conk in Ontario, where he lives, and speculates that it may be due to a decrease in the average age of forests in the region (19). Indeed, habitat loss is a reason for the diminishment of multiple species, fungal, plant, and otherwise.
When harvesting Artist’s Conk, don’t take the big ones…they may be older than you are. Big, old conks are not likely to be good medicine, anyway. Consider grabbing a little conk…a little goes a long way if making double extracts. Or else, trim a year or two’s worth of new growth from a more sizable conk (basically, the white edge and first brown ridge adjacent to the new white growth). This leaves the conk to continue growing.
Want to learn more about Artist’s Conk and other mushrooms that frequent the Rocky Mountains? Keep an eye out under “Herb Classes” for the upcoming Rocky Mountain Mushrooms later in 2022 or visit www.osadha.com to check for upcoming classes and other of my offerings and goings on. There are a few slots remaining for one-on-one classes tailored to your particular interests: https://www.osadha.com/1-on-1-mentoring/
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The articles and videos on this website for educational purposes only & have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease or to substitute for advice from a licensed healthcare provider.
- Ganoderma applanatum (Pers.) Pat. Global Biodiversity Information Facility. https://www.gbif.org/species/165544702
- Kuo, M. (2018) Ganoderma applanatum. Mushroomexpert.com. https://www.mushroomexpert.com/ganoderma_applanatum.html
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- Kim, K-H, et al (2013) Anti-Diabetic Studies of Mass Cultured Mycelia from Ganoderma applanatum in db/db Mice and Human. Korean J Food Nutr. 26(3):336-74.
- Kim, J-E, et al (2014) Effect of Ganoderma applanatum Mycelium Extract on the Inhibition of Adipogenesis in 3T3-L1 Adipocytes. J Med Food. 17(10):1086-94.
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- Vertolli, M (2013) Harvesting Artist’s Con (Ganoderma). Being Herbalism. http://michaelvertolli.blogspot.com/2013/08/harvesting-artists-conk-ganoderma.html