The maitake mushroom has been used for centuries as a powerful medicinal mushroom. Although it’s been a popular mushroom in Japanese cuisine and culture, the health benefits of maitake mushrooms have only gained the attention of Americans over the past 20 years. While it may be similar to other medicinal mushrooms such as reishi and turkey tails, the maitake is different in that it is edible (and delicious)!
Facts About Maitake Mushrooms
Maitake (Grifoloa frondosa) translates to “dancing mushroom” in Japanese. Legend tells that the name is a reaction to people dancing in the woods out of happiness when they would find the mushroom. Maitake mushroom’s medicinal benefits were believed to be so great that it was a source of excitement for those who found it.
Some other common names for maitake include hen of the woods, sheep’s head, king of mushrooms, klapperschwamm, laubporling, kumotake, and the cloud mushroom. The maitake mushroom has no gills underneath the caps and as such is a polypore.
Maitake mushrooms are identified easily by their layers of caps that sort of look like curved spoons. The layers sprout from the base, which is a large fist-sized, gourd-like structure usually found underground near the tree that it is fruiting from.
The folds can grow quite large (and some say resemble the look of a brain). An entire maitake fruited mushroom can be a few feet in diameter and weigh nearly 40-50 pounds! There are a few that have been found that weigh up to 100 pounds, although this is extremely rare.
Maitake mushrooms are primarily found near oak trees but can appear around other trees including maple or elm. Originating in Japan, maitake mushrooms are commonly also found in the Northeastern corner of the U.S. and Canada. They’re also found in Europe and China.
Maitake mushrooms fruit in the fall, usually between September and late October, and they often appear in the same locations year after year.
The Edible Maitake Mushroom
Maitake mushrooms can cause sensitivities such as stomachaches in some people. If you’re thinking of trying a maitake be sure to introduce it slowly. You can expect a strong flavor that is found only in the caps.
Maitake mushrooms have a succulent texture that is somewhat firm. They don’t have the traditional “squeaky” texture of mushrooms. The texture is far more delicate and has even been described as “feathery.”
Maitake mushrooms have a distinctly fruity, earthy, yet spicy flavor and tend to absorb the flavors of vegetables, meats, or spices that they are cooked with.
They can be stir fried, baked, stuffed, sautéed, and in some cases, made into a medicinal tea. Maitake mushrooms are a slightly fancier replacement for any recipe that calls for button mushrooms, and will increase the flavor of the dish accordingly. They pair well with other wild mushrooms, shallots, garlic, thyme, cheese, eggs, bacon, vinegars, and cream sauces.
Unlike other mushrooms that require chopping, it’s easy to simply pull the leaves from the base (similar to pulling leaves off an artichoke). You must wash the mushrooms first, but do so immediately before cooking. Mushrooms that are allowed to soak in water will almost always turn mushy.
Maitake mushrooms freeze well, so if you’ve found yourself in an abundance of maitake consider freezing some for another time.
Health Benefits of Maitake Mushrooms
Compared to other fungi, maitake mushrooms have been shown to provide more substantial benefits toward reducing the risk of cancer, particularly breast and colon cancer. Maitake mushrooms have also been observed to naturally lower cholesterol, as seen in a study published in the Journal of Oleo Science.
They are naturally fat-free, low in sodium, low in calories, and cholesterol free and host a variety of additional vitamins and minerals including:
- Vitamins B and C
- Amino acids
- Dietary fiber
The Medicinal Effects of Maitake Mushrooms
Maitake mushroom is believed to be a kind of adaptogen, which is a compound that can assist the body in alleviating several different mental and physical stressors. They actively work to regulate unbalanced systems within the body.
One of the ways this is believed to occur is through the presence of polysaccharides. Maitake mushrooms, in particular, have polysaccharides that have been shown to stimulate the immune system. Polysaccharides are powerful antioxidants that can help stabilize blood pressure and blood sugar levels and attack free radicals.
This study produced by the International Journal of Cancer found that polysaccharides known as beta-D-glucans are believed to also stimulate the immune system and act as tools to fight cancer. These molecules increase the production of T-cells that then fight the cancer cells, rather than actually fighting the cancer itself. These glucans are so powerful that an extract has been made that’s called maitake D-fraction, which is often included in maitake supplements.
In an article published in the Alternative Medicine Review, the D-fraction and MD-fraction (which is a fancy way of saying the polysaccharides found in maitake mushrooms) is believed to help reduce tumors, particularly in breast, liver, and lung cancer patients.
Maitake mushrooms are also thought to aid in controlling blood glucose levels that are related to type 2 diabetes. There is also ongoing evidence that they may help to aid in the prevention of high cholesterol and to reduce high blood pressure.
Maitake mushrooms are the first mushroom believed to possess anti-HIV activity, and maitake D-fraction can be ingested as an immune system stimulant to help patients with HIV or at risk for HIV/AIDS.
Maitake Mushroom Supplements
While drinking maitake mushrooms or eating them fresh is always a strong method for delivering the health benefits, there are many supplements available that include the D- or MD- fraction. Be sure to consult with a homeopathic doctor or general physician before embarking on any supplement regimen.
You’ll want to look for a 100% extract that contains no fillers. Maitake supplements work best when they are taken regularly. It may take a few months before you notice results or see any kind of physical improvement.
Research has shown that combining vitamin C with maitake supplements improves the absorption of polysaccharides in the body. Organic maitake mushrooms are always preferred, if you can find them.
Be sure to consult the grower or company that you are purchasing the mushrooms from for polysaccharide content. A reputable company will know this information and gladly share it with you.
A Word of Caution for Maitake Mushrooms
While both scientific and homeopathic evidence suggests that maitake mushrooms have the potential to provide tremendous health benefits, there are never guarantees. While the possibilities are promising, it’s essential that you speak with your doctor or homeopath before beginning a regular regimen of including maitake mushrooms in your diet.
As discussed, a certain percentage of the population may have an adverse reaction to maitake mushrooms, so it is best to introduce them slowly. Those with diabetes should consult their doctor before ingesting any maitake mushrooms.
Maitake mushrooms may have an effect on blood sugar and lower your blood pressure. If you have hypotension, consult with your doctor before loading up with maitake mushrooms. Do not ingest maitake mushrooms within two weeks of surgery or if you have a diagnosed bleeding disorder.
Patients with an autoimmune disease or women who are pregnant should not take maitake supplements or eat/drink too many maitake mushrooms.