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The Fungal Pharmacy: The Complete Guide to Medicinal Mushrooms and Lichens of North America

The Fungal Pharmacy: The Complete Guide to Medicinal Mushrooms and Lichens of North America by Robert Rogers. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books; 2011. Softcover, 608 pages. ISBN: 978-1556439537. $29.95.

The Fungal Pharmacy is an attractive-looking book with heavy, glossy paper and lots of lavish color photographs of mushrooms. The book does make a good first impression, and the overall organization is straightforward. After a brief foreword and introduction, the author presents the text in an encyclopedic format. The main body of the text is organized alphabetically by genus. Under the genus heading, synonyms, common names and other species of the same genus are listed seemingly at random, with no taxonomic authorities given. Several appendices in the back offer summary tables of biological activities associated with the species covered in the book, for instance, “Antiviral,” “Antibacterial,” and “Anticancer” effects.

When I see the word complete in the title or subtitle of the book, it implies to me, in this case, that either all mushrooms and/or lichens in North America are included, and/or that all the published and/or relevant information on each mushroom and lichen is included — a task that is admittedly challenging and usually not possible unless the book were literally encyclopedic, which this, despite its attempts for inclusiveness, is not.

After the heading and nomenclature, Rogers provides details on the etiology of the genus, species, and common name, as well as information about the mushrooms’ typical habitats. Each entry continues with information organized by the headings: “Traditional Uses,” “Medicinal Uses,” “Homeopathy,” “Essential Oil,” “Fungi Essence,” “Textile Industry,” and “Other Uses.”

The text of many genus entries is interspersed with whimsical and sometimes poetical statements by people who have had a particular sentiments or opinions about the mushroom under consideration. The identity of the authors of these writings is often cryptic (e.g., “RDR” [apparently the author] or “Tree Frog” [possibly an amphibian whose ability to express itself may have been stimulated by ingesting a particular fungal entity?]), but this does break up the often, as one can imagine, dry summaries of animal studies. An example:

“Agaricus. Fungi Essences — Horse mushroom essence is for those you are not sure which direction to move into [sic]. It will help to remove hard mental patterning, stomach problems, nerves, anxiety and stress. – Silvercord”

From a scientific perspective, suggestions of supernatural powers and details of laboratory animal studies make for strange bedfellows!

From the perspective of a reader with no scientific training, some useful information can be gleaned by looking up the mushroom of interest and either reading the entire entry or looking under particular headings, such as “Traditional Uses” or “Medicinal Uses.” Certainly for many, these 2 subsections will be of the most interest. The traditional-use information is a compilation of what the author probably found in books and articles, but the statements vary as to whether they are referenced.

The writing style is typical of many popular books, where the author is not particularly selective of the data presented to readers. The information, point of view, and opinions of the author are presented, but it would be preferable if the various disparate pieces of information on a given species were woven skillfully together to tell a cohesive story that presents a broader and more insightful view of the material. That the author is not filtering, condensing, and telling a cohesive story is one of my main criticisms of the book. This is the essence of excellent writing of non-fiction, especially today, when attention spans are waning and many of us are used to getting our information on the Internet and in videos. The reader doesn’t have time or patience to wade through lots of disparate facts, digging out the story and valuable meaning for him- or herself. The writer is supposed to do that. Of course, this takes a great deal of experience, skill, and practice to do well.

From a scientific perspective, the content is mostly a conglomeration of facts taken out of context and at times randomly grouped under the various subheads. Under “Medicinal Uses,” many animal studies are listed, one after the other, sometimes out of chronological order, and Rogers includes human studies that are not reviewed for methodology, accuracy, or — importantly — whether they were controlled trials or simply clinical reports. These studies need to be tightly summarized and referenced. Much of what the author presents in the way of scientific studies would be meaningless to the average reader. The details of animal studies are not worth printing anyway because many of these biological actions are species-specific and dose-specific. Citing them under “Medicinal Uses” is rather misleading because a pharmacological action that can be demonstrated in animals does not necessarily — and probably does not — reflect the (human) clinical utility of the mushroom.

The author also does not give the reader much to go on as far as how to make medicinal preparations from mushrooms, how to take them, for how long, or what kind of preparations are most effective. He does not address the many interesting questions that need to be answered while using medicinal mushrooms for health, prevention of disease, and as adjuvants to treatment programs for various diseases or symptoms.

The summary of lichen is interesting because the subject is not well represented in the popular literature, but it could have been more useful if better referenced. Some excellent scientific reviews are available in the literature.

Unfortunately, the book binding is not well glued, and a few pages have come loose after a few times through. Considering the content presented, the length of the book should be reduced by one-third to one-half and tightened up. The book clearly needs further editing, more focus, better and more consistent referencing, and much more consolidation of scientific studies. Instead of discussing many individual studies in separate paragraphs, 10 animal studies or more can be combined into 1 short paragraph, or even a few sentences.

In truth, Robert Rogers did say in the introduction that the book is not intended to be a scientific treatise, but he quotes a lot of scientific studies. If an author extensively invokes science, then it is reasonable to expect that he or she would assume the responsibility to follow the etiquette of scientific writing. As a popular discussion of the benefits and utility of medicinal mushrooms it often misses the mark as well, because practical information about the use of mushrooms for personal health is absent, and often the science is not interpreted and summarized for the lay reader.

Still, since the literature on the medicinal and cultural uses of fungi and lichens is so widely dispersed, the book is worthwhile because, even though imperfect, Rogers puts in a tremendous amount of work to bring a wide sampling of literature together between 2 covers, and he does include and reference a great deal of the primary scientific literature, to his credit, on many species of mushrooms that the average reader would be hard-pressed to find. The color pictures are excellent and make a big difference in the overall feel of the book. The cultural and folk history, although often disorganized, is worthwhile as well.

Interest in the medicinal uses of fungi has been steadily growing since the mid-1990s when I wrote the second edition of my book, Medicinal Mushrooms (Botanica Press, 1995). The first edition was printed in 1989, and the second edition is still in print, but the referenced science is sadly out of date. A new edition won’t be forthcoming until 2014. The Fungal Pharmacy fills a gap in this increasingly popular aspect of urban ethnobotany.

—Christopher Hobbs, PhD Candidate Davis, CA