Last week, I was given an amazing gift: a large piece of Chaga that my dear friend harvested while on a retreat in Northern Ontario. The following day I prepared some for myself and had the most incredible burst of energy that kept me going all day. I was really surprised because I didn’t know what to really expect. I did some research and found out why it had such a profound impact on my day.
So, you might be asking the question, What is Chaga? I have an answer! Chaga is often referred to as a mushroom, however it is not technically a mushroom. A mushroom is called ‘the fruiting body’ of mycelium. Mycelium is the ‘vegetative’ body of a fungus. When that fungus is ready to reproduce, it will form mushrooms. Mushrooms are actually the reproductive organs of the mycelium. Now, in the case of Chaga, the fungus it comes from (Inonotus obliquus) almost exclusively grows in Birch trees. As the fungus grows, it begins to slowly fill up the tree from the center, out. When it reaches the surface, it starts to bubble out, and almost looks like chunks of charcoal stuck to the side of the tree. This formation referred to as ‘chaga’. It is a large mass of the mycilial body of the fungus that is no longer contained by the tree. The actual fruiting body of the fungus inonotus obliquus is a very rare thing to behold, however I found some beautiful photographs here. This guy has been hunting for one for a long time, apparently. It’s pretty interesting to see.
Chaga has been used for a very long time. There is debate on how long, but that isn’t important to me. The important thing to know is, it has been used by people for a long time, and they have had very beneficial results. Typically, it is made into a strong ‘tea’, and drunk as-is. This ‘tea’ boasts a myriad of health benefits. It is a powerful anti-oxidant, one of the most potent adaptogens known as of yet, increases vitality, reduces tiredness, staves off hunger, and increases awareness. It contains so many nutrients and constituents, that I am just going to list them….
“The active constituents of Chaga are thought to be a combination of Amino Acids, Beta Glucans, Betulinic Acid, Calcium, Chloride, Copper, Dietary Fiber, Enzymes, Flavonoids, Germanium, Inotodiols, Iron, Lanosterol, Manganese, Magnesium, Melanin, Pantothenic Acid, Phenols, Phosphorus, Phytonutrients, Polysaccharides, Potassium, Saponins, Selenium, Sodium, Sterols, Trametenolic Acid, Tripeptides, Triterpenes, Triterpenoids, Vanillic Acid, Vitamin B1 (Thiamine), Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin), Vitamin B3 (Niacin), Vitamin D2 (Ergosterol), Vitamin K and Zinc.” (link)
So many sources are discussing chaga growing in a tree to be ‘a parasitic infestation’ or ‘an infection’ pointing out that once Chaga begins to appear, the tree is doomed to die. I do know that the trees that host Chaga all end up dying, but that is not my point. I have been thinking alot about it, and have come to this conclusion:
I believe Nature gives us so many gifts that have the capacity to heal all ailments in our bodies. I truly believe that there is much more bounty and abundance than we can possibly be aware of on this planet…That being said, I know that Chaga has been called by the people living in the Taiga of Siberia, A Gift from God, implying that something so perfectly healthful, with the power to assist in almost any ailment of the body, must be a divine gift. SO, it is hard for me to see this amazing gift as something that is attacking another health giving plant, the Birch. I have read that Chaga can be inside a birch tree for almost 20 years before pushing its way out of the bark. Then, the Chaga conch can continue to develop on the tree’s surface for another 10-
Part of me wonders if this fungus begins to grow in trees that are already weak or vulnerable; let’s say a tree that has a virus. Then the fungus moves in, and begins to metabolize the wood, and the other nutrients inside the tree, supporting it as it is sick. I wonder if this fungus, inonotus obliquus, is actually a tool of nature to support the sick trees that are vulnerable. Nature (fungus) transform a tree that wouldn’t have made it otherwise, and holds it up for longer than it would have been able to stand on it’s own. (This is just a personal curious thought path, not necessarily based on any particular fact!)
Please note that when foraging for Chaga, it can be found in stands of birch trees. It tends to prefer growing on standing trees, so look up. But PLEASE: if you see some chaga, just make a not of where it is, and keep an eye on it for a few seasons. It is a gift worth waiting for. Many foragers get so excited, and just harvest all chaga they find. This means, the chaga never has a chance to reproduce, and this is not a good model for sustainable foraging. The general rune I’ve heard, is only take 10% of whatever you are harvesting in the wild, so that the organisms have a chance to make it to next season.
Chaga grows slowly. when harvesting, we are actually cutting a chunk of the organism off from itself. so, be respectful. I have seen some chaga grow to about 12 inches…it tends to emerge from the tree in a conical conch-like shape. The cone can continue to get larger, if we leave it and allow it to grow for another season. The larger the cone, the more chaga we can harvest. Patience is key. We want to see this amazing, fascinating gift of the forest continue to thrive and be here for future generations.
I have made a syrup that contains this beautiful gift; and also uses the power of elderberries to help combat colds and flus, and boost immune response to viral infections. I call it “Forest Allies Syrup”.
To make a Chaga decoction (a strong concentrated infusion);
Grind a small amount of dried chaga and put it in a pot** with water. For every teaspoon of chaga, use about 2.5 cups of water. Let your brew come to a boil, and allow it to simmer over low heat until the liquid has reduced by one half. Drink as is, or sweeten to taste with honey. The chaga can be strained out and re-brewed until no colour leaches out of the chaga powder (about 3 or 4 times). Make sure you allow the chaga to completely dry out between brews, or else you’ll get some nasty mold growing in your pot. Enjoy!
**It is recommended to use a glass or ceramic enameled pot, as metal will oxidize the brew, making it less potent.
To make a Chaga Tincture:
Taking Chaga as a tincture is easy, and makes your chaga go a little further. Grind your dried chaga and fill a jar about 2/3 full of chaga powder. You want to get the powder really fine to maximize surface area and make extraction more efficient. Next, pour a strong alcohol (something at least 40% alcohol by volume like vodka, rum, brandy etc.) over the chaga to cover it and fill the jar to the top. stir with a chopstick to get out any air bubbles. put the lid on, label it with the date, and leave the jar on the counter. Shake it once a day for the first week, and after 6 weeks, strain out the chaga powder (you might need cheesecloth to get all the little bits). Store the tincture in a coloured glass bottle, and take 15-30 drops up to 3 times a day to benefit from chaga’s powerful immune stimulation. This tincture should last for at least 2 years, if not more.