Many people doubted him. No one supported him. Yet, even though the outlook was bleak, a researcher in Malaysia entered the unchartered waters of nutraceutical research to seek out a rare fungus that had once been touted as a national treasure.
It all started in 2002 when Dr Mahathir Bin Mohamed, the then Prime Minister of Malaysia, announced during his keynote address at the International Biotechnology Convention in Kuala Lumpur that he had finally found a cure for the chronic cough that had plagued him for many years: the Tiger Milk Mushroom.
Mostly falling on deaf ears, these words did have an effect on one person in the audience. Dr Tan Chon Seng, a researcher with MARDI (Malaysia Agricultural Research & Development Institute), vividly recalled that during his youth, his mother would grind a dried mushroom (passed down from his grandfather) into powder and mix it with water for him and his siblings to drink whenever they had a cough, cold or fever. And it worked wonders!
The Tiger Milk Mushroom is native to tropical forests in South East Asia, including Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, The Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Southern China and parts of Australia.
As the name suggests and according to aboriginal folklore, this relatively unknown fungus is said to grow on the spot where tiger milk falls to the ground when a mother is feeding her cubs. It has been used in traditional medicine as a health tonic by Aborigines and indigenous populations to treat more than 15 medical ailments, including cough, asthma, bronchitis, joint pain, fever, breast cancer, stomach cancer, food poisoning, healing wounds, indigestion and gastritis.
Furthermore, almost every Chinese family in the 1950s and 60s kept Tiger Milk Mushroom in their homes as a handy medicine for cough, cold and asthma. The Malays also used it to treat various ailments including breast, liver and lung cancer.
Tiger Milk Mushroom, a so-called underground fungus, was first brought to light in 1664 when a government agent from Europe was given this mythical product when he sailed to the South East Asian region. Published on 22 June 1664, The Diary of John Evelyn records the name of this product as Lac tygridis, meaning tiger’s milk, and reports that this fungus was used by local people to treat diseases that European doctors could find no cure for.
Subsequently, Sir Henry Nicholas Ridley, the father of Malaya’s rubber industry, went on record in 1890 to say that Tiger Milk Mushroom was an important medicinal mushroom used by the local communities. He even attempted to cultivate it but failed. In the same year, Cooke was the first person to document this fungus scientifically and, based on a specimen found in Penang, named it Fomes rhinocerotis. Today, its scientific name is more commonly known as Lignosus rhinocerotis/L. rhinocerus.
Little Known Facts About Tiger Milk Mushroom
Unlike most, if not all other mushroom species, which mainly grow in groups or dense clusters, Lignosus rhinocerus grows in isolation: you’ll only find one stalk at a time. And that’s not all, what makes it precious and rare is that you won’t or can’t find another stalk within a radius of 5km. And, even if you do happen to find one, chances are that it may have grown to a stage by which it has sprouted out from the ground and produced a stem and cap.
Unfortunately, the medicinal properties of L. rhinocerus are only found in the underground tuber or sclerotium. So, by the time the fruiting body has appeared, most of the active compound in the sclerotium will have been depleted.
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As a result of its unique growth habit, coupled with deforestation, finding Tiger Milk Mushroom is very much like looking for a needle in a haystack. Plus, with the rampant use of antibiotics and other medications brought about by advances in medical science during the last 50 years, this mythical fungus has slowly faded from people’s memory. Dr Tan Chon Seng realised that if nothing was done to address this issue, Tiger Milk Mushroom would soon become a topic for history books or an artefact in a museum. He wanted to inject new life into this rare medicinal mushroom.
The Four Challenges of Cultivating Tiger Milk Mushroom
Understanding the lifecycle of Tiger Milk Mushroom, Dr Tan was fully aware of the daunting task awaiting him to overcome four major challenges of cultivating this rare mushroom:
Wait, there’s more: