Last weekend, Joe and I had a brief respite from our grad school lives by camping for a couple nights in the western White Mountains of New Hampshire. We stayed at a first come, first serve campground on the second to last open weekend of the year. Cool nighttime temps combined with an impending rainstorm meant the campground was empty but for a middle-aged man party in one site and the old host couple in another. We cruised around the campground trying to find the “best” site: far enough from the road, close enough to the outhouse (but not too close), and beautiful enough to inspire staying awhile. We found the perfect site–clear to me when I saw the huge moss-covered log surrounded by ferns, a stump covered in a bunch of honey mushrooms, and the colorful leaves falling through streaks of sunlight in the forest behind it. As we were setting up the tent, I noticed a birch tree growing next to the site that had chaga emerging from its bark–an even better sign of having picked the best site!
Chaga, Inonotus obliquus, is a remarkable fungus. While I would argue that all fungi are remarkable, chaga is specifically amazing. Anyone who has lived around birch trees has probably seen it, but not known what it was. Chaga takes the form of what looks like a charred, burned, burl emerging out of birch bark. Unlike most mushrooms, which are just the fruiting bodies of the larger fungus species (much like an apple is to an apple tree), chaga is not a fruiting body–and therefore not truly a mushroom. Chaga is technically a sclerotium: a mass of mycelium, which on “regular” mushrooms is typically hidden underground or within the tree on which it grows. Some people refer to mycelium as the “roots” of the mushroom, but that would be just as accurate as calling an apple tree itself the “roots” of the apple. Chaga looks charred because there is more dark melanin concentrated in the outer parts of the mycelium mass. Probably the only thing chaga could be confused with is a tree burl. The way you’ll know it’s chaga is when you break it off and scuff off the black stuff, you’ll see a lighter brown/amber color inside.
Now that we have that fascinating physiological stuff out of the way for all you nerds out there, here comes the stuff that more people tend to get excited about: ethnomycology. What are the hidden wonders of this sclerotium relevant to humans? Well, as with many tree-dwelling woody fungi, chaga has some powerful immune-supporting properties and anti-tumor properties. There haven’t been any clinical studies using chaga on cancer, but there have been many stories of its success in real world applications and many compounds within it that should help. Consuming chaga doesn’t hurt, anyway, and it tastes great as a tea–if it supports immune systems and possibly prevents cancer, why not try some? Here’s how.
1. Find some chaga. I try to take it off a still-living tree (chaga ultimately kills its tree host), because I’ve found that chaga found on a dead tree is more likely to be rotten inside. If there are many conks of it coming off the tree, don’t take it all. The conk I found last weekend was so big it filled my arms! And there were more conks on that same tree, so I left them behind. Usually a whack with the backside of a hatchet does a good job of releasing it from the tree–chaga falls off remarkably easily given how hard it is (another feature distinguishing chaga from a burl).
2. Using a hatchet, gently buff off the hardest black stuff. This should reveal a more amber-colored interior (see image above).
3. Chop the chaga into smaller pieces to dry it completely. The chaga I found last weekend was waterlogged and soft after some rainstorms, so I was able to chop it into pieces on site, bring it home and chuck it in the food processor on the grating blade, then spread out the fine pieces of chaga on some trays and finish its drying in the oven at 170 degrees. This method is not possible if the chaga is found dry–you’ll need to use a hatchet to break it into smaller pieces, not a food processor or you’ll damage your food processor.
4. Making the tea: I boil about 2 tablespoons of chaga per quart of water and generally let it boil along until the water turns quite dark–about 15 minutes. You can play around with the proportions. Chaga tea tastes quite similar to black tea with some earthy undertones, so it can even be made into a delicious chaga chai if you add some chai spices and milk.
Want more chaga info?
Check out this informative article by Paul Stamets about chaga’s amazing qualities and the problems with over harvesting:
Even Fox News touts the benefits of chaga! Chaga: A Potent Immune-Enhancing Fungus
And for a fun story involving a scared dog, some demons, and chaga itself (dare I say somewhat inspired by this very post?), read this story: Who Do you Think I am, Scooby Doo? This comes from blogger Colin who lives in the Forest of Dean in England. He has a fabulous blog all about the natural adventures he encounters everyday. Visit his blog; it’s fun and informative: A Tramp in the Woods.