The Magic of Medicinal Mushrooms: An Interview with Ron Teeguarden

The Magic of Medicinal Mushrooms: An Interview with Ron Teeguarden

Vivian Kanchian
Vivian Kanchian
July 25, 2023
16 min

I fell in love with medicinal mushrooms for the first time at Ron Teeguarden’s shop in Los Angeles, called Dragon Herbs. I clearly remember strolling in feeling a little under the weather, as if I was on the verge of getting a cold. After a chat with an herbalist who recommended an immunity tincture, I dropped a few droppers full of the bitter extract into my mouth. Before I walked out of the store that day, I was already feeling better. This was over 20 years ago.

Having first discovered the magic of ancient tonic herbs in his twenties, Ron is a Master Herbalist who studied under the guidance of the renowned Taoist teacher Master Sung Jin Park. He has since authored three books on the topic, and together with his wife Yanlin, founded Dragon Herbs in 2000. Now in his seventies, this widely regarded father of tonic herbalism in the US still travels regularly to China to source the highest quality herbs and superfoods. 

I arrive at his office on this unusually cold and wet L.A. evening and find him surrounded by fantastical spaceship-shaped mushrooms he has collected on his numerous travels. Excited as ever about discussing medicinal mushrooms, his enthusiasm is both contagious and inspiring.

Ron Teeguarden: I’m going to start sticking a couple herbs in my teapot because it’s hot now and then we can continue just cooking it for a while. This is just some slices of Duanwood Reishi, it’s bitter.

It’s not the thing I would usually serve to everybody. But this is just a test [to see] if you’re a mushroom girl.

Vivian Kanchian: Haha! Well, I’m possibly the biggest lover of mushrooms, without enjoying the actual taste of mushrooms. But I’m excited to try.

RT: Going back thousands of years there were mushrooms that did all kinds of stuff. You know, from poisoning people to enlightening them in one step, you know. 

All the way up to maybe a thousand years ago, people discovered things like reishi and cordyceps being so healthy and so good for your mind… that the taste was not an issue. People who are real herbalists, they’re not drinking it for the taste. I mean, I try to blend everything in a way so it can taste pleasant or interesting. But the reishi mushrooms are just not a culinary delight. Yet, I recommend every person on the planet take reishi every day so long as we don’t break the chain, the ecosystem, you know – sustainability issues. But that’s been largely solved [with Reishi].

VK: Has it? How so? By lab-grown stuff?

RT: No, we don’t do lab stuff. Okay, so you want to talk about Reishi and examples of that? 

VK: Yeah, about sustainability and I have a specific question actually, about Chaga. From what I understand, the chaga you get from a tree can’t really be duplicated in the lab. Is that right?

RT: Oh, I didn’t even know people are doing hot house chaga. That’s so far out of my scope.

There are things that have to be grown in some kind of situation similar to that. A few things like cordyceps are too hard to get wild from the snow line of Bhutan and Tibet. It’s way… four miles up, maybe five miles up. If you just tried to go up there, you would die. 

VK: I went to Denver once and I practically died.

RT: Yeah, you understand. But…in the Himalayas, in Heaven Mountain, these places [are at] a different level. You’d have to have all those things that the Alpine climbers wear. 

And the Chinese cordyceps are like $50,000 a pound, you know. So, whatever it was back 40 years ago, it’s doubled since I last checked. It’s just an extremely precious thing – real cordyceps from the real place. Cordyceps go back to certainly pre-dinosaur [times] – a couple hundred million years.

Our cordyceps come from Bhutan, and it takes [sherpas] seven days trekking up a mountain, on Himalayan paths with their yak to get to where they can spend two days and collect the cordyceps. And even then they’re going around on their hands and knees [so they don’t accidentally step on them]. Then [you begin to] understand the hardship and the craziness of it. 

[The sustainability of cordyceps] has been preserved in Bhutan. They just don’t have any tolerance for non-ecological behavior. And they have limits on everything for sustainability, by decree of the king and the congress, on whatever [can and can’t be] cut down. And they can’t dump anything into the rivers anywhere – that kind of mentality. 

We sell Bhutanese cordyceps because it’s just the nomadic tribes [that live in the mountains] who go there. They are peasants, but they’re rich because they can sell the cordyceps for $20,000. By the time it gets to Hong Kong or Shanghai or something, it’s $50,000 a pound for the decent whole pieces that haven’t had their heads broken off or something. 

But Tibet is a different story because Tibet has a plane in front of it. It’s not coming straight up from just like the south side of the Himalayas. On the other side, you get the Tibetan Plateau and then it kind of gradually goes up until it really goes up. So, they can fly helicopters up there and they do cordyceps hunting tours. In May, companies just fly their helicopters [full of people up there]. And then they walk. See, in Bhutan, they’re not allowed to walk within a certain number of meters [of where cordyceps are found].

At a certain point, they have to crawl. Which is the traditional way to do it, but that’s not what they do in [Tibet]. So, you’ll never see anybody walking [in Bhutan] because that’s probably prison [time]. [Tibet is] not protecting the sustainability as much. First of all, those helicopters…they’re polluting this place where this precious stuff is and everything else up there. And there’s noise pollution and there’s a lot of factors.

[Once they land] there, people walk in and, they have a picnic or whatever they do. But they collect big bags of it and it’s worth a lot of money. So, the sustainability for cordyceps from Tibet is a gigantic problem. The government of China is very strict, and they have army up there with rifles but people just fly two miles over [because] it’s just worth the risk… they don’t get caught. They know what they’re [doing]. They’re professional nature bandits.

[So, because cordyceps have become so] popular, growing it in beds of appropriate nutrients makes sense for people because it does produce some health benefits. 

But in general, like Reishi for example. It is illegal to sell Reishi mycelium in China. Because in China, they know too much. Even the common person, everybody. They’re experts on Reishi. Everybody knows, it’s not the mycelium. It’s the fruiting body [that is rich in medicinal compounds]. Actually, people go to prison. I know somebody, who… they gave this person like 15 years for selling Reishi mycelium and not putting it on the bottle. You know, China can be strict. But, that is actually how they feel. 

Reishi, what we call Duanwood, or Duàn mù. Mù is the word for wood. When Yanlin and I were first going up to the mountains and seeing it growing on these plantations… 30 years ago now. She translated it to me as Duanwood. Duan, because that means original, authentic. And that’s kind of a big thing to me. Original sourcing.

VK: So you coined the term?

RT: Yanlin did. It was a great name for authentic wood. This is a principle in China. It’s how they do it. They go to the mountains, and it [Reishi] has to be grown in the mountains. There’s no flat land Reishi, not even a foothill Reishi. You go up to the mountains. China’s a very mountainous country. 

So every mountain has different varieties of Reishi like Ganoderma lucidum, or Ganoderma sinensis, or close relatives that have been growing there for millions of years. Forests will typically have eight or ten species. And some of those hardwood species, when they hit a certain immunodeficient stage of their life.

You know, it’s a moment. When you’re walking through it, you’re probably inhaling the spores all the time. I think that’s why there’s breatharians in the mountains, people who eat so little. But they’re getting plenty of nutrition because they’re breathing what’s in the pollens and the spores. My physiology books don’t talk about the nutrition in the air. But, you can smell it in the air. You can smell [the] fungus. It’s not an emission of necessarily just gas. It’s reproductive stuff happening, you know. At all times in the forest. 

People knew from tradition. Oh, this [type of] Reishi that grows on these trees, at this altitude, on this side of the mountain, where the fog rolls in in the morning and rolls out in the afternoon. That’s the one that can save a dying person’s life. Or, after generations of watching it, they knew which one makes people actually live longer. They would get those mushrooms for the emperor. Or the hermits would take it for themselves. You know, they learned through time. 

In the late 1980’s, the government got involved in helping people to manage reishi back to sustainability. So, producers could go in and cut down just a little piece of the forest, typically ten trees. And then they cut the logs one foot long, and they just inoculated those logs and that’s the wood they would be growing on. They pick out the trees that are the right age.

So they’re actually just kind of going in and clearing out some of the 10 old trees from a little piece of the forest. It is just like a rule of nature in China. There’s a stream just down below, not above, because they don’t want it to flood over and screw it up. The Reishi actually doesn’t know. It’s just a tree that’s been cut and put there. And they would have grown there anyway. So, they had the legacy of knowledge of the people that lived in that area. Plus, they could also do scientific testing to see how much terpenes and polysaccharides and other things were in that particular fruiting body. And that’s Duanwood.

So, my principle is that we want our herbs to be wild-natured. You know, [we’re] not looking for standardized necessarily. If you’re growing something wild-natured, it’s got a better balance of characteristics – always. Because they’ve been growing for a million years there without our help, without anything. And that’s what actually goes into our product. We grow them on logs [in the same elevated mountain environment].

VK: So, are these mushrooms that are in your office right now… can you actually eat these?.

RT: I do eat them. Yeah. I just, I chip off either a little or a lot. You know, depending… it’s been hard for me to get back to China for the last four years because of the pandemic. That’s real wild mountain Reishi from China (points to a giant disc-shaped mushroom sitting on his desk). This is what I want to consume because these mushrooms have been collecting information and building up chemistry for decades, actually. That empowers them. 

[There are] shops in China called 22 Reishis – a connoisseur’s class of shops. And they all carry 22 different types of Reishis. That’s the way to stand out. [The Chinese people, and some aficianados] know what they do. They feel it’s been written about by the masters thousands of years ago. There’s ten, what they call “holy mountains” in China.

And so every mountain has one type of what they call a “Reishi”. They’re not all actually Ganoderma, but they’re related. And those are ten of the twenty-two, each mountain has one. They don’t include some of the same equivalent types of mushrooms from the Himalayas or from Taiwan. The Reishis are considered masters, the kings of twenty-two mountains in [all of] Asia.

VK: So, do you make your tinctures here? Do you have them done in China? How does that whole process work?

RT: Yes, both. There are a couple of specialty houses in America that know how to make tinctures very well. So, in the early days, we used to buy these Reishis and bring them in, but it became very difficult to bring them in. The [US] government from time to time says no mushrooms can come in. Just because button mushrooms get a fungus, so they ban the [entire] kingdom. And that would certainly ruin your day if you’re in the business. 

It takes a couple of days to make it… the way we do it, in these special tanks and they’re not dripped, they’re recirculated and we do, four or five different kinds of processes to get everything out. Those places [that know how to do this] are very expensive and it pushes the price up, like, you know, $30, $40, $50 for a two ounce bottle.

So, we joined hands with a pharmaceutical factory that actually had this pharmaceutical license in China to make drugs. They built us a workshop. And so we produce all of our tinctures there. And that’s the best because they are our employees. We are the buyers. There’s nobody in between us and the mountain. And I’m a monster. I either get my herbs right or we don’t produce it.

Ron Teeguarden in his office holding a reishi mushroom

Image Source: Vivian Kanchian

VK: Returning to Chaga for a moment. Can you talk to me about sustainability and your thoughts on hothouse grown Chaga?

RT: I don’t think you can grow chaga in the hothouses. I don’t even think you can grow it good on Duanwood, because it’s got to grow for 15 or 20 years. 

Chaga only is called Chaga in Siberia when it’s become like 15 or 16 years old. It’s a different thing when it’s five years old. It hasn’t evolved [chemically]. But they grow it on logs in hothouses, and they sell it when it becomes four years old. The majority of the world’s commercial chaga is that. They sell it in the Chinese market as Cambodian, and it’s like mountains of it. Let’s just say real Chaga is going to have the Di Dao [the authentic growing conditions]. 

Other than that, people do need their chaga. I mean, they need their chaga. And they need to have a rationale for it not being the most expensive one, you know. Which come from really where nobody’s ever going to de-sustain it too badly because it grows where no man wants to be. It’s in the marshy Arctic, unless climate change changes that. It’s marshy, and at any one time you’re surrounded by one million mosquitoes.

So, I actually have never been there because I don’t wanna go there, you know? I mean, some people do that kind of stuff. To where they actually go up to where the mosquitoes are. [That is] where they collected our chaga, which is Siberian and I feel very good about the fact that it’s authentic. Our chaga is all 20 years old. We don’t get that much, and we don’t market it too heavy. We’re not the leader in the market because if you’re a leader in the market then I’d have to come down the mountain, you know.

Or, I would have to buy something else, buy it from Manchuria. Which is still Arctic, but it’s not Siberia, which is further north. Also, we’ve checked, and it’s really not supplying the Russian war machine. The money isn’t going there. It all stays in the village.

VK: Can I ask, how important is the knowledge of indigenous people to growing Reishi, or any mushroom? How important is that? Because it seems like in a lot of ways, what we do with standardization now is a reflection of what we have become as a society. Everything has to be explained by science, and nature is complex and cannot always be explained by science.

RT: Well, I think the standardization is a typical human desire to make order out of the chaos.

People have been standardizing herbs in China that we know of for 4,000 years. They actually have written records with authentic sources. And they described things like what part of the valley [the mushroom] would be in, you know, like how much shade it would get and that kind of stuff.

But, what they were standardizing for wasn’t triterpenes or polyphenols you know.

It would be based on those Chinese principles, you probably heard things like taste and color, which reflected the chemistry of a food. That’s how they judge quality, and I don’t care what anybody says on the side of a package, I can tell when a carrot has got chemistry, you know? 

But, there is an issue of sustainability with some mushrooms. We all have to balance the idea of being completely au naturel because in ancient times, an old hermit may have lived on one mountain. He could get the herbs from that mountain and he was the only hermit on that cliff. He wasn’t denuding the forest, but nowadays we can get things from everywhere in the world.

All you have to do is find it on the internet. And if it’s good, sustainability becomes a giant problem. That’s a really big issue for wild things. We (at Dragon Herbs) limit our wild things. We are not really a wild-natured company. And that means every product, everything we sell, is the wildest we can get. It’s wild-crafted. None of these things are flatland grown. It’s just against my principles. Tonic herbs should come from the original source as much as possible, the original location. It doesn’t mean they have to be wild, it means they have to come from the same location [and conditions].

VK: Air, water, and soil?

RT: Yeah, air water soil, [but] there’s more than that. And once you get in the soil, then you’re going into the empathetic environment.  We [humans] have a microbiome. Well, every plant has that. And I’m talking four or five hundred different microbes [underground] going around the rhizome, and then changing when it gets down to the roots, and changing again five feet away from [the plant]. And it gets little worms coming through that are making [castings]. There’s all kinds of bacteria and other things in the soil or inside the dead wood, the dying wood. Those are the progressions – just so beautiful. And frankly, I’m into it. 

You have to have a living earth attitude. And so, here is my thing. Before I die, I am going to be able to say, “Yeah, I went through my entire life selling things that were alive from nature, but I didn’t wreck the environment.” You’ve got to have sort of a Chief Seattle attitude. In the 1800’s, when the Americans took over his nation, Chief Seattle had to surrender. There was no choice. So, he gave a speech. He just expressed how Native Americans saw nature and that he couldn’t understand how people could put possession to things and destroy the rivers.

But it’s possible to do a business like me and actually not leave things any worse, maybe a little bit, maybe a lot better than how we found it. And that’s really true with mushrooms. I can sustain a whole family of employees here and in China and around the world, and I can be happy and I don’t have to destroy the earth. But I can’t become the Pfizer of mushrooms growing wild-crafted. We limit ourselves to one run a year of the wild 22 Reishis that is very sustainable for the amounts that are in the forest. There’s a certain limit. I am morally content with what I do. Nature is a little bit more important to me…

Ron Teeguarden in his office

Image Source: Vivian Kanchian

VK: I just wrote a piece about a fungus vaccine that scientists want to invent for drug-resistant fungal infections. As I researched more, it was so interesting to me that out of over 150,000 fungi that we know of, only about 200 of them are harmful to humans. We came up together, side by side, over millions of years. If we begin to attack fungus with a vaccine, doesn’t it seem to you that it would just make them want to survive even more… and no longer consider humans their allies?

RT: There’s no question that everything is a web, united, like a chain. And when you destroy some part of that network… everything that we do today is actually influencing the universe. The other side of the world. In the littlest ways.

But certainly everything that we do in terms of poisoning… I mean, it’s only taken us a hundred years to accomplish this. It’s not even a blink in the eye of the earth. Yet, we’ve completely changed the chemistry. But life will not die off. It’s just going to get rid of the blight sooner or later. It’s not going to be Mandalore. It’s not going to turn into glass. It’ll just be new. It’ll be new. There’s going to be something that just evolves, a pressure that the ecosystems can produce.

[Just like] we produce T-cells, ecosystems can produce something that can come and get rid of these things that are destroying their forests or their rivers. Sooner or later they’re going to produce a kind of toxin. Lots and lots of animals and plants and fungi and viruses and bacteria and protozoa and everything else – they’re all having trouble. So, everybody’s reacting and this will last [only] for so long. 

Maybe that’s the whole point of what we’re trying to do here… trying to work with the earth to create a balance and harmony that can [also] sustain humans. I think we’re the generation. There have always been people like Thoreau and Emerson saying nature is better than cities. And in China there has been a bigger effort toward that because Taoism is a principle. Right now, a lot of people are aware. And as a [producer of tonic herbs], I’m the middleman between nature and humans. So, I keep a moral code.

VK: In my evolution down the path of how to apply mushrooms in inflammatory and autoimmune conditions, I would sometimes read (usually on more conventional/Westernized sites) that they can potentially overstimulate the immune system. My current view on that, after much research and self-discovery, is that they don’t. But I would love to hear your take on this.

RT: The major evolved [wild/medicinal] mushrooms. All of the famous ones…the reason they’re famous is because they’re self-regulatory. They won’t let themselves get out of a certain bound. 

They’re bidirectional. They have a couple of mechanisms by which they can regulate your immune system. They’re strengthening the regulatory mechanisms of your body, not the actual end game of each of those things. They are not immune stimulants. They are not immune suppressants. They’re immune regulators. Some people use the word “immune modulators,”

But modulators, if you think about it, is not quite right either. Because [that] means it changes your immune system. It might modulate it to be too much or too…

But these herbs, like Reishi, they are equally used for immune deficiency, like cancer, tuberculosis or viral and fungal infections. They’re also used for [overactive immune conditions like] lupus or myasthenia gravis or arthritis, or anything with an -itis at the end. Because these things aren’t just isolated symptoms, it’s at the core of our life essence. The immune system works by regulating the amount of inflammation that develops as we get older.

As we age, most species, they lose some of the mechanisms that control inflammation. Inflammation is the most important driver of aging on every level. And so these mushrooms, they regulate. They really are only tonifying our regulatory thermostats. So we can hold [inflammation] at bay if we live a good life, you know, and avoid the things that are considered major stressors like drugs and psychological abuse. 

Nuclear factor kappa B (NF-κB) is actually extremely well known now among scientists, but still not the general public. They should have called it Betty or something, you know some name that people can remember. You can see in all of these evolved tonic mushrooms [that they] regulate NF-κB. If you do a search on Chaga, it’ll say, “Chaga suppresses NF-κB.” And it doesn’t just suppress it. But if you actually had a wound or you needed to be inflamed, chaga would make that [area] become active for the short time while it’s necessary to heal the wound, and then it will suppress it so it doesn’t become chronic.

That’s the beauty of these herbs…there is a system in there from the beginning of time about regulation. That’s why life was able to evolve. Because we went through the snowball earth and the bombardment earth and the volcano earth and the wet earth.. and the dinosaur… you know, [we] went through all these things.

And all the animals just sort of went up and down because they could evolve, they had this regulatory [system so] they could adapt and survive. And if they couldn’t, they would mutate or they would go away and go into the soil where the mycorrhizae would consume them and turn them into another thing.

VK: Thank you for being so generous with your time and wisdom. I just want to say that you are as much of a treasure trove as your old-growth mushrooms. Can we get some photos for the article now?

RT: Sure. I take pictures with me and my mushrooms because I want to be a mushroom when I grow up (laughs).

Fact Checked: Shannon Ratliff


Vivian Kanchian

Vivian Kanchian

Content Writer

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