Chaga: Powerful Natural Medicine
I’d like to introduce my absolute favorite mushroom, Chaga. Scientifically known as Inonotus Obliquus, Chaga has a long history as a healing, natural medicine. Calling Chaga a mushroom begins the first of several debates surrounding this natural wonder. Many claim Chaga is not a mushroom, instead is a sterile conk or canker, ultimately a fungal disease, which is true, however in my own personal research I conclude Chaga to be in the mushroom family. There’s other debates such as the sustainability, harvesting techniques and how much to use, all of which I will address.
Chaga is the mushroom that launched my interest in the fungi world, I was taken by how unusual it was and all the benefits it holds within. I quickly fell in love with the hunt for it, how challenging it can be to find and harvest. I also loved that it grows in parts of Poland, part of my heritage, and also in New York, where I grew up. I love the process of foraging Chaga, breaking it down, drying, and then brewing and consuming the tea. It’s very much a mysterious mushroom, with no clear knowledge on how it propagates, leaving it impossible to grow at home. The benefits of Chaga are numerous, I use it everyday and have for the past 11 years!
There’s a lot of lore when diving into the history of Chaga. Here in the United States there has been some, but far too little, research done on Chaga. There are several accessible studies to be found on pubmed.gov, a great resource site of medical studies on anything you can think of and as official as it comes. Trying to understand the language in the studies can be challenging however. Chaga shows up in early Eastern European and Asian cultures, indigenous peoples using it as medicine, especially gut health, soap making and for fire.
Chaga is actually a Russian word for mushroom. The Khanty people, an indigenous tribe in Siberia, may be the first people to have used Chaga. It grows extremely well there. Other mentions of its use come from the Alps, where an ancient iceman named Otzi was found in the 1990’s fully preserved. He was carrying a few objects on his person and Chaga, as well as Birch Polypore mushrooms, were found on him. It’s believed he used the Chaga for fire, immunity and gut health.
Chaga shows up in early Asian medicine writings, described as the king of herbs. In Japan it’s called the diamond of the forest. In the 1960’s, Chaga got a plug from Russian author and noble prize winner Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, whose book “Cancer Ward” gained international attention. Aleksandr wrote that Chaga helped cure his mouth cancer. Chaga is, and has been, widely used in Eastern countries, recognized as a medicinal treatment and revered as healing medicine.
Here in America, the use of Chaga has a much shorter history and the knowledge around it, though growing, is still extremely far behind. Chaga is widely used in Canada, where you can even find Chaga tea bars!
Chaga can be found in many places around the world. Here in the US, you can find it in many states including New York, Maine, Michigan, Alaska, Virginia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Oregon, Washington, Tennessee and many others.
Chaga grows in cold climates and thrives off the cold temperatures. It loves high elevations, anywhere starting at 3500ft, at least here in the southeastern United States. It’s important to note it only grows medicinally on Birch trees. Chaga can grow on other trees, such as Beech, but is only medicinal on Birch. Chaga can show up on sweet, yellow, black and white Birch trees. Chaga’s Latin name, Inonotus, can be translated to ‘I no notice’, as it’s often hard to spot and can often be mistaken for a burl or even bark on the tree. Finding Chaga also takes a lot of off trailing and bushwhacking in many cases. Once found, it can be hard to reach as it tends to grow higher up in the host tree. There’s some debate as to when and where to harvest Chaga. Some say to forage in the spring/summer as the wound will grow back faster with the steady flow of sap, others say harvest in winter as it’s gaining the most medicinal benefit, not competing with the leaves and sap for nutrients to grow. I have foraged Chaga for the past 11 years here in North Carolina and personally forage all year long. Chaga is an extremely slow grower. It can take 20+ years for it reach full growth. That said, Chaga can harvested anywhere between 5-10 years and up and by that point it will have gained enough medicinal benefit to use. Knowing how to gauge that is tricky.
Once you begin foraging it you’ll easily see the difference between pieces that are only a few years old, being rather small and the larger pieces, which have reached that maturity, and are the ones you want to forage. There’s also been debate as to the region. It seems true that Chaga grows larger, faster and more abundantly in the northern parts of the country such as New York, Michigan and Alaska. I’ve foraged in many northern states and had wonderful success, however, I’ve also foraged here in North Carolina over the last decade and have seen plenty of abundance. Again, I’d like mention that it does take some getting off the trail and into the woods to find it most of the time. It should be noted that the Birch tree is medicinal top to bottom, the bark, sap, and leaves all contain diuretic and anti-inflammatory properties, as well as immune system boosting properties. Chaga gets into a wound in the tree and goes straight to the heart wood (center of the tree), where it infects it and slowly begins to grow out of the wound, breaking through the bark to create the large black horn. Chaga will eventually kill the tree, which can take up to 20 years! One of the things I love the most about Chaga is that it regrows if harvested correctly, until the tree dies, making it the gift that keeps giving!
So what does sustainable harvesting look like? In my own personal study of it’s regrowth, in research online, books and through my own observations, I recommend leaving 30-50% of the Chaga on the tree. In simpler definition, breaking off the large horn will do it. That means not digging into the tree to get the corky, orange growth or cutting out the rims that are left after collecting the horn.
Much of the idea that Chaga is scarce or over harvested comes from examples of bad harvesting practices. When done wrong, Chaga won’t regrow. It’s also good practice to only take what you need and to harvest from different areas, not collecting all you see in one given area. I use a small hatchet to get a nice precise cut. Getting large pieces off the tree that grow high up takes some doing. I have several methods when it comes to harvesting, that part you’ll have to figure out as you go along!
Next comes the processes of breaking it up and drying. I’m a bit old school and use a large sludge hammer to smash large pieces into small chunks. It goes without saying that Chaga is extremely hard! There’s some entertaining videos online of peoples methods to do this. Having the small chunks works just fine to make medicine and tea, but if you want to take it the extra mile and grind it down into a powder, it takes a strong grinder. I use a high horsepower meat grinder. Once broken up, it’s time to dry it. I prefer using the sun and putting the pieces on a tray in the sun for a few days depending on how wet it is. Sun drying also adds extra Vitamin D! It’s very important to thoroughly dry the Chaga as it can develop mold quickly. A dehydrator can also be used. Chaga sometimes develops white lines along the black outer coating, this is not mold, instead it is salt from the dried sap. Mold on Chaga is rather obvious in its smell and appearance. The number one rule: when in doubt toss it to the woods.
There are several ways to make Chaga tea. Some people will use a crock pot and let it simmer all day, others throw large chunks into a pot and boil it for hours. The way I learned, and recommend, is using two tablespoons of small chunks or ground up Chaga per 2-3 quarts of spring water. You can throw the chunks in the water, use a tea ball or buy empty tea filters, which is what I use, and find in the grocery store. Bring the water to 150 degrees or a slight rolling boil, shut off and let it sit 7-8 hours. The water will turn to a beautiful amber color. The same chunks can be used three times before discarding! The second batch is made the same as the first brew, on the last brew I let it hard boil for about 5-10 minutes to pull out anything left. I enjoy adding licorice root, vanilla bean, ginger root, or cinnamon to mine for a nice flavor, I also like to add Reishi or Turkey Tail to it for extra benefit. Get creative and try new mixes, a Chaga Chai or golden milk can be quite delightful. You can drink it hot or cold. I leave mine on the stove and drink about a quart through out day. If you’re not going to use it that often, I recommend refrigerating what you don’t use and it will keep up to two weeks. Making Chaga tea is not a quick one cup process, that’s why I prefer to make larger batches that will last a few days.
Chaga has a range of great benefits, internally to externally as well. The whole of Chaga can be used, from the black outer coating to the corky golden middle. That black coating on the outside of the mushroom, protects the inside from the harsh climates, it also contains Melanin, which our skin produce naturally. The way it shows up in Chaga is as protection against UV rays, added pigment, keeping skin healthy and helping to prevent wrinkles. Making or using a salve with Chaga is a great way to use Chaga externally. Internally Chaga can be used as a tea or a tincture. Chaga provides one of the highest amounts of anti-oxidants of any food, this benefit shows up in fighting free radicals in our body. Free radicals cause cell damage in our bodies, causing health problems and can come from numerous sources such as stress, smoking, drinking or even sunburn. Chaga stimulates the immune system and can be a regulator, if the immune system is under active, it can bring it up, if it’s over active, it can bring it down. I have been using Chaga and other mushrooms for the last 11 years and have not been sick once in those years, where as before Chaga and other mushrooms, I would get sick at least once or twice a year, this difference tells me my immune system is stronger.
The next benefit is another that I’ve seen big differences in my body thanks to Chaga. Chaga is anti-inflammatory, helping to reduce inflammation in joints and also in digestion. I have bone on bone arthritis and am always hiking, Chaga has helped keep swelling down in my knees quite a bit and have also noticed a difference in my stomach with bloating. Chaga is considered anticancer, containing betulin and betulinic acids, which come directly from the birch tree, both of these demonstrate anti-tumor effects as they attack tumors and help fight tumor growth. Furthermore, these two compounds fight obesity as well.
Here’s a quick list of other benefits contained in Chaga: different B vitamins, potassium, manganese, sodium, iron, calcium, magnesium, zinc, polysaccharides, polyphenols, flavonoids, tannins and beta-glucans. It’s easy to see why Chaga is considered a super food!