WORDS ELISE ASPA
PHOTO MATT WALKER
The Japanese call it ‘The Diamond of the Forest.’ The Chinese refer to it as ‘King of Plants.’ In the tradition of Siberian Khanty shamanism it is known as ‘King of the mushrooms.’ Other names include clinker polypore, birch canker polypore, tinder conk, and birch conk. Whichever name you call it by, chaga is a black fungus that grows on trees. It has been used in folk medicine for many years.
Where It’s Found
Chaga is predominantly harvested in the Northern Hemisphere on paper and yellow birch, and can sometimes be found on alder, beech, elm, and maple trees. Chaga thrives in northern latitudes that reach sub-zero temperatures. Growing in all sizes, this dense black mycelium can be seen on the outside of trees infected with the fungus Inonotus obliquus. Chaga will eventually kill the birch tree; therefore harvesting it will prolong its life.
Chaga has been used as a traditional folk medicine in Russia and Eastern Europe since at least the 1500s. Most common in Siberia, where the Khanty people used it to prevent and treat illness such as asthma, bronchitis, liver disease, heart conditions, tuberculosis, and ulcers. Chaga’s antifungal properties were used to treat parasitic worms and for internal cleansing. The Khanty prepared chaga as a tea, but also used the burnt fungus to create a disinfecting soap water decoction.
The Khanty burned chaga in cleansing rituals where the smoke was inhaled for spiritual reasons. Every part of the birch tree (bark, buds, juice, leaves, and wood) was used in their folk medicine practices.
Among the Ojibwe of Eastern Canada, chaga was known as skitogan. Traditionally it was regarded as a cure for tumours. The Ojibwe used the smoke created from burning the chaga to sedate bees, allowing them to harvest honey. They used chaga in its powdered form to enhance the narcotic effects of tobacco. The Ojibwe also took advantage of the fungus’s sepia brown colour to create a dye for traditional clothing.
The best time to harvest chaga is in the late fall when the birch tree has gone dormant for the winter. When the sap starts running in the spring, the chaga will have absorbed up to 80 percent water and be void of most nutrition. It’s critical to not harvest chaga while the birch tree is going through the spring and summer cycle: wounding the birch during this time will eventually lead to its death if the gash is not closed properly.
Harvesting chaga sustainably is essential for its future. Leaving behind a layer promotes regrowth, to come back to in future harvesting seasons. Chaga that has reached at least the size of a grapefruit is ideal for harvesting. Since chaga is found so sporadically, it has a symbiotic relationship with its environment, and will never play a role in mass deforestation. Birch that has parasitically fallen prey to chaga will nutritionally give back to the soil and help provide for the next round of regrowth. Like most fungi, chaga’s mycelium absorbs elements from its surrounding environment: harvesting from the side of the road, in urban areas, or near any sources of pollution is not recommended.
How to Prepare Chaga
Water and alcohol extractions are the most highly recommended methods when preparing chaga. They both pull entirely different nutrients from the fungus. A common practice is making a tincture (an alcoholic derivative of a plant). Combining the two extractions is favoured for maximum nutritional benefits. The dual extraction is simple to use, quickly absorbed, and easily added to recipes, drinks, etc.
The most common way to consume chaga is by preparing a tea. Chaga is known to have notes of vanilla, caramel, and even coffee. Steeping dried chaga in hot water for many hours brings out these desired flavours.
Chaga has traditionally been used as a remedy for many different ailments. Some promising research has been done into chaga’s potential for slowing the growth and spread of tumours, and also into its use in cancer therapy. Chaga’s potential medicinal uses certainly merit further research.
Herbalists hail chaga as an adaptogenic herb; a nutritional supplement which helps the body adapt to various stressors. They praise its content of betulinic acid, chromium, iron, magnesium, melanin, and the antioxidant superoxide dismutase (SOD) as beneficial to overall health. They believe it can help boost the immune system, improve skin, and fight candida overgrowth, among other benefits.