Helpful Herbs: Chaga
The Chaga mushroom is particular in its growth and resembles a large burnt spot on the side of a birch tree. Despite its downright unhealthy appearance, it is actually a remarkable healing plant that is a key ingredient in many natural medicines.
Chaga is found almost exclusively on birch trees. It prefers cold climates, and it is not hard to find in the woods of the North East. The Chaga mushroom is different from a lot of typical fungi. Your average mushroom works a little bit like a flower or other plant, the growing part that we harvest is its "flower" or reproductive parts, while the many body of the fungus is beneath the ground or the bark that it is growing on. With Chaga, the entire body of the fungus grows on the outside of the bark. Chaga "fruit" is very rare, and usually only appears once the host tree is dead.
When you harvest Chaga, you are taking the entire plant organism instead of just its flower or leaves. It is crucial to this healer's survival that it is responsibly harvested, only from areas of the forest where it is plentiful. Leave at least 50% of the mushroom's growth on the tree and do not simply remove all of the growths you see, leave plenty to continue the plant's life cycle. Chaga is hard to grow in a cultivated environment. Growing or leaving stands of yellow and paper birch trees on your property for it to grow on may be the best way to encourage its survival in your area.
Chaga should be harvested during the fall and winter, from live trees. You can harvest Chaga using a sharp knife to cut through the outer, blackened surface and into the softer, more orange interior. Once harvested, Chaga is dried by dividing the larger pieces into small chunks and putting them in a warm, dry spot.
While Chaga is usually harvested for its medicinal properties, many chefs have also incorporated Chaga into the kitchen in new and interesting ways. The powder from the dried roots can be mixed into smoothies and even used as part of a fudge recipe with chocolate. The most popular way to consume Chaga is as part of a soothing tea.
Chaga is considered a "superfood" because of its amazing immune boosting qualities. Packed full of good nutrients, Chaga not only boosts the immune system but will also help to slow it down if it is overactive. Research has shown that Chaga can help to kill cancer cells, and it soothes various bacterial diseases including ulcers. Because of its high levels of betulinic acid, Chaga will help reduce blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and it can even help protect your skin from showing signs of aging.
Chaga has a rich history in Russian and Chinese ancient medicine. The Siberians call this fungus a "gift from God" and "the mushroom of immortality", while the Ancient Chinese have called it the "king of herbs". Siberians and even members of the Russian royal family would drink Chaga to promote health and longevity. As far back as the 11th Century, Grand Duke Vladimir Monomakh wrote about Chaga's abilities in healing a lip tumor. It was used to treat various civilizations of Eastern Europe throughout the centuries for stomach ailments, kidney problems, and as a salve to rub on sore joints and irritated skin.
Because Chaga has recently gained huge popularity as a natural medicine, and it is so slow to grow and easy to kill, its responsible harvesting is a very important part of its future. Used with care, Chaga can be an important part of your health and its harvest can be an educational and fun opportunity for exploring the forest.