The agarikon mushroom is an ancient species, considered by some scientists to be the oldest in the world. Agarikon mushroom is native to areas with temperate climates and used to be found all around the world. However, agarikon mushroom is almost extinct today in both Europe and Asia. As a result of widespread deforestation, it is very rare in China. The last zones where agarikon mushroom is still found in large numbers are the old forests of North America. It is especially common in the states of Washington, Oregon and Canadian British Columbia of the Pacific Northwest.
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The species likes woods with old conifer trees. The body of the agarikon mushroom has a distinctive cylindrical shape, on which every year another round layer of pores that produce spores grows. Similar to a tree, you can tell the age of an agarikon mushroom by simply counting the number of circular layers.
Mature conifers usually develop top rot because of this mushroom, which is important for many species of animals that live in the resulting cavities. Due to its slow rate of growth, the mushroom is not a dangerous parasite and some trees can live with it for even hundreds of years. It survives by feeding on decaying wood for several years after the tree dies, which makes it a partially saprophyte species.
This fungus that lives on wood is part of the Polyporales order and has the scientific name Laricifomes officinalis. Because of the very bitter taste, agarikon mushroom is sometimes named the quinine conk but the usual name is agarikon. Agarikon mushroom grows mainly in North America, but also in Europe, Asia and Morocco, and causes a distinctive brown heart rot on conifers. Even if it was believed to be part of the genus Fomitopsis, modern DNA testing conclusively proved that it is not.
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Since the agarikon mushroom has a strongly bitter taste, it was believed to have a content of quinine and used to be harvested to produce it. However, it was later discovered that the medicine produced that way had no effect against malaria and included no quinine at all.
The unique-looking conks are shaped like columns or hoofs and can grow as big as two feet long. Decay is rare and only found on very old stands. Young agarikon mushrooms have a soft texture and are white or yellow in color, they later become white and gain a consistency similar to chalk. Decaying areas have square cracks and a brown color, while large cracks also display thick white felts. A trademark of this mushroom is the extremely bitter taste. The cavities caused by the agarikon in the tree body are used by various nesting birds.
The Haida, Tlingit, Tsimshian and other tribes that inhabited the Pacific Coast of Northwest North America considered the agarikon very important for its medicinal uses, as well as religious and spiritual significance. In some of the local languages, the name of the mushroom can be translated as "the bread of ghosts". The graves of important shamans were sometimes decorated with carved agarikons.
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Old growth forests of the Pacific Northwest in both Canada and the USA are today the last refuge of this ancient mushroom, which used to be widespread all around the world. The private company Host Defence, owned by mycologist Paul Stamets, has made significant efforts to preserve samples of wild spores, for future genetic research. The species is important because it inhabits some of the oldest forests on Earth, in areas untouched by pollution, and it includes a number or rare and valuable micro-nutrient compounds.
Some of the most interesting components of the agarikon are ergosterols, triterpenoids, beta-glucans and glycoproteins. The high concentration of compounds with anti-viral properties makes it a potential effective treatment against poxvirus and other lethal virus strains. This is why the species has been studied by the U.S. Department of Defence, as part of its Bioshield Bio-defence Program.
Scientists have tested 11 different strains of agarikon found in North American forests. Several were found to be very effective against very dangerous viruses like swine (H1N1) and bird (H5N1) flu, cowpox and both the HSV1 and HSV2 strains of herpes. Ethanol extracts of the agarikon mushroom were matched against ribavirin, which acted as a positive drug control, and were found to be at least 10 times more effective against flu viruses. Russian researchers have also tested the agarikon extract recently, against the H5N1 flu type, and discovered that it has a strong antiviral activity, with a low risk of damage to human cells.
Ancient Greeks were aware of the medical benefits of the agarikon mushroom. According to Pedanius Dioscorides, an author who wrote in the year 65 AD, it was used as a cure for tuberculosis by the Greeks and against smallpox by others. Many cultures have used the agarikon mushroom in various medical mixtures since the dawn of history, due to its content of agaric acid. It might have been a very important species, since it was found in old graves.
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Agarikon was even considered an elixir for long life, in the book Materia Medica written by Greek physician Dioscorides in 65 AD. Greeks used it against night sweats, tuberculosis and respiratory problems. Agarikon mushroom was known to be an effective natural anti-bacterial, anti-viral and anti-inflammatory agent.
The already mentioned Materia Medica of Greek physician Dioscorides in 65 AD is also the first known mention of agarikon. The famous Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder mentioned agarikon mushroom in his works as well and later English herbalist John Gerard in the 17th century.
It enjoyed a solid reputation as an elixir for longevity and general panacea, able to treat any disease. Agarikon mushroom was especially used as a cure for pneumonia, tuberculosis and other breathing-related disorders, as well as a poultice for external use against any type of inflammation or pain of the muscles and bones. It was also said to be a poison antidote, according to one legend, king Mithridates preventively consumed a potion prepared from it as protection against poisoning. He later tried to commit suicide during a period of depression and took a strong poison that had no effect, due to the agarikon that he consumed for so many years.
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North Coast First Peoples of North-western North American also used the agarikon in medicine. It had a religious significance for Haida First Peoples of the Queen Charlotte Islands, where it was part of their creation myth. When European colonists introduced new viral diseases to the continent, such as smallpox, the natives might have used agarikon as a treatment against them. Primitive humans also employed it against infections and it might have been important for their survival, according to recent ethnobotanical studies.
Modern researchers have been able to validate the ancient claims that agarikon is effective against various pathogens. It has been tested against a variety of bacteria, for example salmonella, E. coli, Staphylococcus aureus, Candida albicans, Agrobacterium tumefaciens, Bacillus cereus and B. subtilis. Besides killing germs, the agarikon mushroom also boosts immunity of both types: innate and specific. It is also able to kill viruses, which resist most types of drugs. The agarikon and the polypore, which is another ancient species of mushroom related to it, have also been found to be active against tumours.
The agarikon is only found in the wild, in old-growth conifer forests. The Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga) and the larch (Larix) seem to be the best trees for this species. The destruction of ancestral forests threatens this wild mushroom with extinction. Some strains can be cultivated in labs but their genetic structure is very hard to conserve, so it is very important to save the wild populations of agarikon mushroom.
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