Tremella is a relatively strange mushroom and perhaps the only fungus valued for its “beauty-enhancing” properties. It has been consumed in China for centuries and is a familiar food item in East Asia, despite it lacking any value in occidental cultures. Its slimy and gooey consistency makes it different from other medicinal mushrooms, but this doesn’t make it less medicinal. Tremella has been shown to have many promising properties that may be able to help in the treatment of various illnesses. It is also quickly becoming popularized as a natural moisturizing agent in skincare products.
It’s important to note that Tremella fuciformis is also biologically unique in its form, ecology, and composition. While it exhibits many of the same properties as other medicinal mushrooms, it’s no doubt that this mushroom is unlike its counterparts.
Natural History Of Tremella
Many mushroom enthusiasts are familiar with the strange gooey jelly fungus commonly referred to as “witches butter”. For many, it’s nothing more than a strange orange jelly on the sides of logs. Turns out that these mushrooms are not only medicinal but close relatives of the highly prized Snow Fungus scientifically known as Tremella fuciformis. Also known as White Jelly and Silver Ear, Tremella fuciformis is the main species of discussion in this text.
Tremella fuciformis is native to many tropical and subtropical parts of the world. It’s similar to witch’s butter, but often larger and with a translucent white color as opposed to bright orange. It is usually found growing on the side of dead hardwood logs that have fallen to the forest floor. While there are similar species that may occur on conifers, this species only occurs on hardwoods.
Its form is considered irregular and maybe most comparable to a lettuce plant. It’s circular and forms a coral-like rosette with frond-like growths occurring from a central point. It’s squishy, moist, and cool to the touch. Its jelly and slimy texture are found unpleasant by some. They can be just a couple of centimeters in size but can grow to be 10 to 15 cm.
The ecology of the Tremellais particularly curious and mindblowing for two reasons. To begin, it grows as a parasite on another fungus which it cannot complete its life cycle without. Unlike other wood-rotting fungi, Tremella is largely incapable of breaking down the cellulose and lignin that woody materials are composed of.
Its most common host fungus is scientifically known as Annulohypoxylon archeri. This is an inconspicuous wood-rotting fungus in the Xylaria family that forms small spherical charcoal-like fruiting bodies. In cultivation, these species must be “co-cultured” together. These relationships are pretty strain-specific, thus Tremella growers will use cultures originating from the same logs that they were isolated from in nature.
Tremella fuciformis also exhibits a “dimorphic” lifestyle, growing not only as multicellular hyphae but also as single-celled yeast! Contrary to popular belief, yeasts are more than the species used to brew beer and make bread. “Yeast” is a classification based on lifestyle and morphology. This characterization is loosely defined as a single-celled colony that reproduces asexually via a process called “budding”. Tremella species have been observed growing in 3 forms. As single-celled yeasts, as “pseudohyphae” composed of long chains of yeasts, and as true hyphae as is the case with most mushroom-forming fungi. Fascinatingly, other Tremella species have been found to occur as yeasts as parts of the microbiome for some lichens!
While the ecology of Tremella fuciformis is still largely understudied, it is presumed that it grows in close contact with its host, likely acquiring sugars and amino acids directly from the hyphal cells.
Tremella fuciformis is considered a relatively widespread mushroom in tropical and subtropical regions. The lack of widespread genetic studies makes it difficult to ensure its true distribution, because like many mushrooms this may be a complex of closely related species. Regardless, here we discuss this species in its “broad sense” due to this information gap.
In North America, it is found throughout Central America, Mexico, and the Eastern United States. It is extremely rare or absent in the western United States, Canada, and Europe. In South America, Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and Asia it is found in much of the tropical and subtropical forests.
Other Species Of Interest
Other species of tremella or tremella like mushrooms have also been consumed traditionally and undergone some preliminary research.
Naematelia aurantialba, previously called Tremella aurantialba, is known as the yellow jelly fungus or more commonly as witches butter. It should be noted that various jelly fungi appear similar to and often bear the common name “witches butter”. This species is more common in temperate climates and is known to be eaten in southeastern Tibet, Yunnan Province in China, as well as other parts of Asia. While less common than the “snow fungus” this species is also cultivated in China and called “Golden Ear Fungus”. It is generally considered safe to consume raw. Several studies have been conducted on this mushroom and it’s shown to have promising medicinal properties. It is also used in beauty products.
Tremella mesanterica is another species of “witches butter” that is commonly confused with Naematelia aurantialba. These names are continuously used interchangeably in both scientific and popular literature, often making the distinctions difficult. This species is known to parasitize fungi in the genus Peniophora while the former parasitizes fungi in the genus Stereum. While this species is often cited as the cultivated golden ear, this is not the case.
Darcymyces is a genus of yellow jelly fungi often commonly named “witches butter” that can be confused with the last 2 species mentioned. These can be differentiated by a whitish attachment point to the substrate it’s growing on. This species also occurs on conifers as opposed to hardwoods. While these species are considered non-toxic they do not have the same history of consumption.
For this text, we use the name Tremella or “Snow Fungus” to refer specifically to Tremella fuciformis.
Traditional History Of Tremella “Snow Fungus” Mushrooms
Tremella has a long and colorful history, particularly in China and East Asia where it has been used for thousands of years. Here it’s been valued as a food item with nourishing medicinal properties that preserve your youth, inside and out.
Some of the earliest records date back to the 8th century and were in regards to a popular Chinese concubine called Yang Guifei. She was considered one of the four “great beauties” of China, famed for her beauty and tragic death. Her pseudonym was “Shy Flower”, and was said to “have a face that puts all flowers to shame”. While she was more known for consuming endless quantities of Lychee, she also was said to have a fungal beauty secret. Of course, this was Tremella or the Snow Fungus.
It is repeatedly cited that Tremella was an extremely high-value item in all the Chinese dynasties, only consumed by royalty. It was most valued for its rejuvenating and life-extending properties. Since Tremella could not be cultivated for a large part of history, it made it a rare and exotic delicacy that fetched a high price. At one point a small box of tremella was said to cost “10 Liang silver”, which is equivalent to several months’ pay of an average laborer.
Tongjiang county located in the northeast part of Sichuan province is officially considered “The Homeland Of Tremella” by the Chinese State. It was said to be discovered here in 1832, although it was scienticically described later in history from Brazil. Tongjiang is home to not just the only Tremella Museum in China (and probably the world), but it is also home to the Tremella Festival.
Tongjiang tremella is noted for its superior texture, flavor, and medicinal effects. It is said that Jiajing, the 19th-century emperor, cured his anxiety and sleeplessness with the help of Tongjiang tremella. The town of “Chenhe” is where Tongjiang tremella is said to have originated. The foggy forested region was preferable for the growth of tremella, which is said to be “nursed by the dew”.
The cultivation of Tremella dates back to 1894 when it was originally cultivated on logs. One of the traditional cultivation techniques involved mixing mature Tremella with cool but previously boiled water (for pasteurization probably) and then using it to water oak logs. In 1978 the cultivation of Tremella in prepared substrates drove up its production and widespread availability. A major breakthrough was the understanding of making mixed cultures of the host/parasite together. In 2018 China cultivated approximately 360,000 tons of Tremella, accounting for 90% of the global production.
To this day, Tremella is highly valued for its use as a health-enhancing functional food item. It is most traditionally consumed in a variety of desserts that include fruit, sugar, and even coconut milk. There are also a handful of savory and salty-sweet recipes for tremella. While Tremella has little to no flavor, the texture is soothing and refreshing. It is consciously consumed because of its many health benefits.
Medicinal Properties Of Tremella
Scientific studies conducted on Tremella and its constituents are showing many parallels with the traditional uses in addition to new applications. While much of the scientific research has only emerged in the past 10-15 years, it is showing many potential health benefits. In particular, the polysaccharides and polyphenols present in this mushroom are shown to exhibit antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anticancer, and cognitive enhancing properties. Its use in cosmetics has also received attention due to its protective and moisturizing effects.
It must be noted that there is still a great need for further research on Tremella mushrooms. No human clinical trials have been conducted on the bioactivity of this mushroom and thus all suggested health benefits require further testing. Also, it must be noted that some studies have been conducted on closely related species Tremella mesenterica and Tremella aurantia, which are less common but still known to be consumed traditionally in East Asian cultures.
Certain studies have also been conducted on exopolysaccharides of Tremella mycelium grown in submerged culture. These are polysaccharides that are released by mycelium when grown in liquid broth-like culture. Instead of harvesting the mycelium itself, exopolysaccharides are harvested from the broth. Also, some studies have been conducted on artificially altered and modified polysaccharides.
Polysaccharides: These are generally considered the most active components found within Tremella and have been a focus of a majority of studies. More than 50% of the dry weight of tremella is composed of Polysaccharides, with the most abundant being uronic acid. Beta-glucans are also highly present in polysaccharide extracts.
Polysaccharide extracts of Tremella have been shown to have several interesting properties including being anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antitumor, anti-radiation, antiulcer, and immunomodulation. These polysaccharides have also been shown to have a very high water-holding capacity and for this purpose, they are used in many creams and cosmetic products as a moisturizing ingredient.
Polyphenols: These are largely non-water soluble molecules that exhibit antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. Specifically in Tremella, these are hydroxybenzoic acid, gentisic acid, and 4-coumaric acid. Together these only make up a very small percentage of the fungal biomass, but they have been shown to have potent effects.
Other bioactive substances: Bioactive fatty acids, proteins, enzymes, flavonoids, dietary fiber, and trace elements are also found in Tremella. These are not considered the main contributors to the medicinal properties of Tremella.
Benefits Skin Health
- Anti-photoaging effects of Tremella polysaccharides (TP) were evaluated in a 30-day UV-irradiated animal assay. TP was shown to reduce water and collagen loss in the skin, and inhibit the increase of glycosaminoglycans. UV-induced skin structural alterations were also alleviated. (Wen, 2016)
- Carboxymethylated polysaccharide (CATP) derived from Tremella fuciformis had high antioxidant and moisture-preserving activities. (Wang, 2015)
- Skin cells treated with Tremella fuciformis extracts were protected from wrinkles caused by UVB-stimulated damage. (Kwang Ho, 2016)
- Exopolysaccharides derived from Tremella mycelium increased moisture and anti-wrinkle factors in skin cells. (Jo, 2021)
- Polysaccharides from Tremella were shown to reduce UV photosensitivity on human skin cells. This suggests it may be useful as an anti-photoaging ingredient in cosmetics. (Choi, 2021)
- Polysaccharides from Tremella were shown to have statistically significant wound healing effects on ex-vivo porcine skin wound healing models. (Khamlue, 2012)
May Improve Immune Function
- Tremella polysaccharides were shown to have significant effects on enhancing immunity in cyclophosphamide-induced immunosuppression in mice. (Zhou, 2018)
- Tremella polysaccharides increased counts of leukocytes in the peripheral blood in cyclophosphamide-induced leukopenia in rates. (Jiang, 2012)
- Polysaccharides from Tremella mesenterica may increase T-cell immunity and the elevation of proinflammatory and T-helper cytokine production in rats with impaired glucose tolerance. (Hsu, 2014)
Use In Cancer Treatment
- Tremella fuciformis polysaccharides showed a protective effect against radiation-induced damage in mice. (Xu, 2012)
- Polysaccharides from Tremella were shown to have antitumor activity on Sarcoma 180 implanted subcutaneously in mice. (Ukai, 1972)
- Different strains of Tremella were tested to see differences in immunomodulatory and anticancer activities of their polysaccharides. They were shown to have varying degrees of activity but were shown to augment necrotic cell death, induce apoptosis, and have immunomodulatory and anticancer abilities. (Han, 2015)
- Ethanol extracts of Tremella mesenterica were shown to inhibit the growth of lung carcinoma A549 epithelial cells via the induction of apoptosis. (Chen, 2008)
- Tremella polysaccharides exhibited potent anti-oxidative that was able to reduce hydrogen peroxide-induced injury of human skin cells. (Shen, 2017)
- Polysaccharides extracted from Tremella were shown to have high antioxidant activities. (Zou, 2017)
- Polysaccharide extracts of Tremella exhibited the hydroxyl radical scavenging effect by hydrogen donating ability and iron ion chelating ability, suggesting significant antioxidant properties. (H.M., 2011)
Improve Cognitive Function
- A randomized double-blind study was conducted on 75 individuals with subjective cognitive impairment and showed patients fed Tremella had improvements in cognitive function including significant improvements in short-term memory to the placebo group. (Bran, 2018)
- Tremella fuciformis hot water extracts were shown to have neuroprotective effects on PC12h brain cells. Cells treated with extracts showed reduced toxicity beta-amyloid beta plaque treatment. (Park, 2018)
- Rats with trimethyltin induced memory deficits showed significant improvements in cognitive function when fed Tremella. (Park, 2012)
- Purified Tremella polysaccharides showed neuroprotective effects against glutamate-induced DPC12 cell damage. (Jin, 2016)
- Tremella polysaccharides were shown to prevent nonalcoholic fatty liver disease in Mice via the inhibition of inflammation and oxidative stress. (Khan, 2022)
- Tremella was shown to have a protective effect from LPS induced acute inflammation and shown to be a promising anti-inflammatory agent. (Lee, 2016)
- Tremella polysaccharides were to inhibit LPS induced oxidative stress and inflammation by inhibiting the miR-155 expression and NFkB activation in macrophages. This suggests it could be a potential reagent for inhibiting the development of inflammation. (Ruan, 2018)
May Help Regulate Blood Sugar Levels
- The polysaccharide Glucuronoxylomannan from Tremella exhibited a significant dose-dependent hypoglycemic activity in normal mice and significant activity in streptozotocin-induced diabetic mice. (Kiho, 1994)
- Exopolysaccharides produced by submerged mycelial cultures of Tremella were shown to have hypoglycemic effects. Plasma glucose levels were reduced by about 52% in mice fed the Tremella exopolysaccharides compared to control mice. (Cho, 2007)
- Acidic polysaccharide solutions from Tremella were shown to have antidiabetic effects on diabetes model mice in a 10-week trial. It was also shown to lower cholesterol content. (Kiho, 2001)
May Improve Gut Health
- Tremella polysaccharides improved ulcerative colitis in mice by inhibiting inflammation and enhancing intestinal epithelial barrier function. (Xiao, 2021)
- Digestive behavior and fermentation characteristics of Tremella polysaccharides suggest they may possess the potential to improve intestinal health. (Wu, 2022)
- Tremella polysaccharides were shown to inhibit colonic inflammation in dextran sulfate sodium-treated mice. (Xu, 2012)
Other Suggested Medicinal Properties
- Tremella extracts were shown to efficiently enhance mouse fatigue endurance and anti-hypoxia capability, partly through energy reserves and antioxidant enzyme activity in a 14-day trial. (Yang, 2019)
- Tremella polysaccharides were shown to have the potential for the treatment of bacterial infections caused by Pseudomonas aeruginosa. (Shi, 2018)
- Aqueous extracts of Tremella were shown to have a protective effect in stressed mice and suggest it may have anti-stress activities. (Min-Seok, 2009)
- Rats fed diets with Tremella fuciformis showed a decrease of 17% in serum total cholesterol concentrations and effective hypocholesterolemic activity. (C.K., 1996)
Consuming Tremella Mushrooms
Tremella can be consumed both as a functional food or directly as a medicinal supplement. It is also unique in the fact that polysaccharides from Tremella are also used in creams and cosmetic products.
Like previously mentioned, a lot of research is still required to fully understand the medicinal attributes of tremella. For what ailments it is most effective, to what extent, and proper dosages all require further studies.
Cooking and Eating Tremella
Tremella is most often purchased and commercialized in its dehydrated form. If you have fresh tremella you can prepare it similarly, skipping the rehydration process.
With dried Tremella, you will want to soak it for 1-2 hours in room temperature water. It is recommended to not soak Tremella for more than 4 hours to prevent the growth of potentially toxic bacteria, although intoxications are rare and many rehydrate overnight with no consequences. Tremella is most often cooked in sweet dishes that include fruit, coconut milk, and sugar, but they can be cooked in savory dishes as well. Many recipes suggest you should mix ingredients and pressure cook Tremella for 20-30 minutes. Alternatively, you can cook Tremella on the stovetop in simmering water for 30-60 minutes until Tremella is soft and tender. The texture is jelly-like and goey.
Dose: To receive a beneficial effect from eating Tremella you only need to consume 1-2 grams, but higher doses may be more effective for some conditions.
Tremella in Cosmetics
While other medicinal mushrooms are occasionally used in cosmetic products, Tremella is the most known for this particular use. In most cases, Tremella is used in moisturizing creams and has had a relatively good public response from consumers. Cosmetics typically use extracted polysaccharides from Tremella and not the entire fruiting body. It should also be mentioned that the internal consumption of Tremella is also suggested to help the health of the skin, thus if this is your goal you may want to try external applications and internal consumption of Tremella.
Tremella can be purchased in various forms of extracts. Most commonly it is found as a powdered extract and occasionally it may occur as a tincture.
- Powdered extracts can be mixed into food items, beverages, or a supplement blend of your choosing. Dose: 500-1000 mg or as indicated by the producer.
- Tinctures can be taken by the dropper full or mixed into any beverage or food item. Dose: 1-2 droppers or as indicated by the producer.
Tremella powders are relatively rare other than in their extracted forms. Powders labeled as “activated” or “extracts” can be consumed without cooking, those which do not mention this should be cooked thoroughly before consuming. Dose: 1-2 grams per day or as indicated by the producer.
Safety Of Tremella Mushrooms
Tremella mushrooms are considered safe and non-toxic but in-depth studies are required to understand all of their biological activity. Tremella has been consumed as a food item in much larger quantities than recommended dosages for supplements with very few reports of health problems. This being said if you suffer from serious illnesses, allergies, or have any reason to be cautious you should take precautions. Consult your doctor first and if you choose to consume tremella start at a lower dose.
While Tremella has not been as thoroughly studied as other mushrooms, it appears to have many promising properties for your overall health. The deep traditional history of Tremella also suggests that it may be effective and have various health benefits. Its use in cosmetics is unique and maybe an attractive product for many interested in improving the health of their skin. If you decide to consume Tremella consider paying close observation to its effects to see whether Tremella is working for you. Since Tremella is considered very safe there is no risk in giving it a try!
- Environmental Science and Mycology Researcher, Author, Contributor
- Humboldt State University Bachelor of Science (B.S.), Environmental Science with focus on Ecological Restoration.
- Former President of the Mycology Club at Humboldt State University
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