Year of the Chaga
Trent and I visited Minnesota twice in 2020. We have a family cabin in the Northwoods near Grand Rapids, MN. I have been visiting my late grandparent’s cabin at Beaver Bay for as long as I can remember. It’s a special place loaded with fond childhood memories and connectedness to nature. There is nothing quite like a MN lake reflection when the lake is dead calm. See featured image above. True peace and quiet steeped in nature’s sounds and beauty. Total zen.
As adults living in Colorado, we don’t get to the cabin as much as we might like. The pandemic gave us the push we needed to seek out a safe haven where we could spend time with family. Little did we know that it would also become the trip that introduced us to chaga (Inonotus obliquus) in all of its fungal glory.
In our little nook nestled amongst 1 of 10,000 lakes, we are surrounded by beautiful old white pines and lots and lots of birch. An oak here, a maple there, but mostly birch and pine. The forest gifts us a few chanterelles, a few hedgies, a good bunch of lobsters and lots of chaga.
Perhaps like many of you, I often used to wonder over every funky black burl … is it chaga? Once you actually do a little research and go on the hunt for chaga, like many mushrooms, it becomes unmistakable. Aside from a few exceptions, it will almost always be found on large paper birch trees. It looks like a cancer on the tree (in fact it is a parasite, very slowly killing the tree host), staining the white paper brown as years of rain water pour through the conk and drip down the tree. It’s a dense canker of sorts that comes in many protruding shapes. Harsh, black, crumbled and crusty looking on the outside with a rich corky brown interior speckled with telltale golden threads.
Why Hunt This Mushroom?
Chaga often makes it into the growing list of “medicinal mushrooms” hitting the mainstream these days. Michael Kuo has vehemently disagreed about this placement. But in his book, Fungal Pharmacy, Robert Rogers suggests it has been used as a medicinal by the Cree Tribe as well as in China, Japan and Russia for years.
And while there is little research backed by any kind of human trials (in fact not even one recent study, most from the 1950s as reported by Rogers in Medicinal Mushrooms: The Human Clinical Trials), there are beneficials mixed with something ancient and magical in this fungi. Rogers reports that in vitro and in vivo studies bill chaga as “anti-tumor, anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant” with suggestive blood sugar benefits for diabetics. Also that its “polysaccharides may stimulate the immune system or inhibit oxidative stress and DNA damage”. A significant amount of melanin is found in the dark black outer layer of the sclerotia which may help block processes in the body that lead to skin cancers.
Christopher Hobbs, in Medicinal Mushrooms reports host water extracts of chaga have the highest antioxidant effects by far of any mushroom extract studied. These antioxidants are come from polyphenols (water soluble) and in fact the best results come from cooking chaga at extremely high heat and pressure with a pressure cooker or instant pot. We have tried this and it makes an excellent beverage.
Medicinal mushroom fans certainly know that we are experimenting on ourselves any time we consume “nature’s medicine”. Rogers himself points out there are very few studies to support any of these claims. You should always proceed under caution and in the care of your doctor.
All that said, chaga is my personal favorite ‘medicinal mushroom’ to drink as tea. It makes a delightful, mild flavored tea that does not taste mushroomy at all. See recipe at the end of this article.
How to Harvest
Harvesting chaga requires a sharp hatchet or a saw as it is as much a part of the tree as are its branches. Solid and woody, it’s not easy to remove. It’s also not uncommon to find this mushroom 20′ or 40′ up in the air (pole saw works under 20′). Sustainability is a factor as our Northern forests do not offer an unlimited supply and chaga is a slow growing mushroom. Only after the death of a tree host does the mushroom create a fruiting body that sporulates. Infected trees can live tens of years before succumbing. Rogers suggests the only sustainable way to harvest is “gently prying the easily loosened part of the conk, and leaving the rest”. Years later you should see new growth. Whatever your method, ideally you should leave a healthy portion of the mushroom to continue future growth.
Many folks also recommend hunting chaga in the winter. I suspect this is so that the mushrooms are easier to locate. However, I have seen a few accounts that noted this is the optimal time during the mushroom/tree relationship for medicinal benefit. I can also tell you that chaga on dead/downed trees is no longer viable. Any beneficial that was once there is gone.
I can not claim that we harvested sustainably based upon Robert’s advice (although we did not hack away the entire mushroom), we are still learning. We were fortunate to be in a forest that was marked for timber removal and many of the trees we harvested were marked.
How to Process
Rule number 1 with chaga is to process it right away. If you let it sit for any number of days it will dry out to the hardness of the tree it came from. It is fairly wet, sometimes even corky, when first harvested. While tough – it is possible to break it down into much smaller chunks. I use the hatchet, very very carefully. You need something solid to place it on so you can hack away. It’s certainly not a science, chunks go flying – this way and that – and it makes a real mess.
The goal is to get the chunks as small as you can, say 1 inch cubes or less. You can make tea from chunks this size and dry then reuse them 4-5 times to brew again. If you need a powder – we run the chunks through an old school meat grinder with a hand crank (I quite enjoy this arduous process), and then take that reduction and process it with the grain attachment on the Vitamix. This creates a fairly fine powder.
If you are NOT lucky enough to make it to Alaska, Maine, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan or Canada any time soon, you can purchase wild harvested chaga on the internet. You can find it at reputable sources such as oregonmushrooms.com or farwestfungi.com, or you can try your luck on eBay or Etsy.
I am absolutely NOT an expert in the realm of medicinal mushrooms. We have been experimenting with teas and mushrooms tinctures for years to help build our our immune systems. All I can tell you is SO FAR SO GOOD!
The Fungal Pharmacy, Robert Rogers
Medicinal Mushrooms, The Human Trials, Robert Rogers
- 2 ounces chaga broken into small chunks or ground
- water to fill large stockpot
- Combine chaga chunks and water in a stockpot, set your thermometer to about 150F, and monitor temperature closely. You will want to keep your brew at 160F or below so as not to alter the medicinal benefits of the mushroom. You can also use a crockpot set to warm. This tea should steep for 5 to 6 hours. The longer it steeps, the darker and more potent the tea becomes.
- When ready, strain the chaga chunks from your tea and save. You can air-dry them an use to brew again until they no longer create a dark liquid, about 5 to 6 times.