CHAGA – How to Identify, Harvest, Prepare, and Store It
Megan Plete Postol 06.01.21
Chaga is a fungus that has been consumed for centuries. It is commonly made into a tea or tincture. Chaga devotees tout its many benefits – inflammation reduction, anti-aging, supports cholesterol levels and blood pressure levels, can sooth stomach ulcers, gastritis, and other intestinal issues, and immune system support, to name a few. It has even been studied for its effectiveness in the fight against cancer.
According to WebMD, several studies have found that substances present in chaga may effectively prevent cancer and slow tumor growth. One study showed that a hot water extract of chaga mushroom inhibited the growth and promoted the death of colon cancer cells. Other reports suggest that chaga might have a use in the development of anticancer drugs. These studies are optimistic, but further research is needed to determine the true effectiveness of chaga in fighting or preventing cancer.
Chaga – Identification
Chaga mushrooms (fungus) are common throughout the Northeast region of America and most of Europe. It thrives in cooler climates. The best time to harvest this medicinal powerhouse is in the autumn and through the winter season. Once spring arrives and sap starts flowing, its best to wait until cooler weather returns to harvest again. Chaga HQ suggest waiting to harvest chaga until there have been at least five nights in a row below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. The guide suggests that that is when chaga mushrooms are at their peak nutritional value.
Chaga grows on yellow and paper birch trees. Birch is abundant in the Northeast. Yellow birch has yellowy-bronze bark that peels in small, fine shreds horizontally from the trunk. Paper birch, or white birch, is named for the tree’s thin white bark which peels in papery layers from its trunk.
It grows on the birch bark in a woody mass, often round or cone shaped, but it can grow in a variety of shapes and sizes. This woody growth is called a conk or canker. The outside of the chaga conk is usually brittle and black, resembling charcoal. The outside layer of the chaga growth is called the sclerotium. The interior is a rich golden-orange color. You can use a pocketknife to chip some of the hard outer layer away to reveal the rusty, cork-like center to make a proper identification.
There are no poisonous chaga look-alikes; however, there are other non-chaga cankers (conks) that grow on different species of tree, so do not harvest chaga from any trees other than birch trees.
Chaga – Harvesting
Chaga is a non-harmful parasite of the birch tree. It can only survive on living trees. Chaga must always be harvested from living trees, because if the tree is dead, so is the chaga mushroom. Because the birch host trees are living, harvesting chaga should be done with extreme care not to harm the tree. Be careful not to cut into the sapwood, leave the heartwood of the tree alone.
Chaga conks take years to grow. The same tree can be harvested every four to ten years, depending on the rate of growth of the chaga. That’s another reason why it’s important to harvest chaga with care; the same mushroom infection can regenerate and be harvested again in the future, if it is not damaged. For size identification, use your hand as a guide. Place your hand on top of the chaga conk. If your fingers touch the tree, it is too small to harvest. Let it grow a few more years and come back when it’s ready. You can use a knife or a small, sharp axe to methodically cut the chaga off of the tree. Make sure to leave approximately 15 to 20 percent of the chaga growth on the tree. Leaving some behind protects the tree from damage and ensures that the chaga can keep growing.
Chaga – Storage and Preparation
Once you’ve harvested your chaga, it’s important to store it correctly so it does not get ruined. Chaga will mold if it is not dried after harvesting. First, break chaga into small chunks. Once broken down, place chaga chunks on a flat surface. This could be a pan, cookie sheet, or something similar. Place chaga near a mild heat source and let them dry out for a few days. Near a window that gets a lot of sun is a good option, as is placing chaga near a woodstove. Do not put your chaga in the oven. Once chaga is good and dry, it can be stored. It needs to be stored in a container that is not air tight, it needs “air to breathe.” Storing chaga in simple paper bags works well. You could also store chaga in a basket with a light cloth draped on top. Do not store chaga (or other mushrooms) in an airtight, Ziploc-type bag or in plastic bags.
The most popular method to consume chaga is by tea form. Another popular way is to add ground chaga to coffee. When consuming chaga via liquid, you’ll get all the benefits of the water-soluble components, such as the polyphenols and beta-glucans, but you won’t get the water-insoluble components, such as phytosterols, and betulinic acid. Those components must be extracted in a tincture. You can find a recipe for a chaga tincture here. The following is a simple chaga tea recipe from chagahg.com.
- Chaga Chunks
- Maple Syrup or Honey
- Break up the chaga into smaller chunks, roughly 1 inch in size.
- In a 1 liter pot of water, drop in a handful of chunks and bring to a boil.
- Let the chaga chunks simmer until the water turns a reddish-brown color, or at least an hour to extract more of the bioactive ingredients.
- Strain the tea into a mug and add some maple syrup or honey to taste.
- You can reuse the chaga chunks several times before they start to lose their strength. Simply put them in a mason jar without a lid, and store in the fridge.
As a reminder, do not consume any fungus that you are not 100 percent certain about. For more information the author suggest the following reference materials: Chaga: King of the Medicinal Mushrooms, by David Wolfe, EVERYTHING ABOUT CHAGA MUSHROOM: Everything You Need TO Know About The Most Potent Medicinal Mushroom : History, Cultivation, Uses, Edibles, Recipe and Health Benefit, by Daniels Ross PH.D, and Miracles of Chaga: The Medicinal Healing Mushroom – Prevention, Healing & Cure, by Suzanne Sanders.