I first learned about Chaga when I was just a young boy, and my grandfather was the one that taught me everything he knew about this strange mushroom and how to reap its many benefits. Chaga has been used in old folk medicine, and many people do not even know it exists since they mistake it for something else.
The Chaga mushroom (Inonotus obliquus) has been credited with killing cancer and providing many other health benefits. This mushroom is a bit uncommon, and it doesn’t resemble your typical mushroom, so hunting for it becomes quite an adventure.
A closer look at Chaga
When this mushroom becomes the object of my pursuit, I carefully examine every birch tree I encounter since Chaga grows mostly on live birch trees. While Birch is the preferred tree, it can also occur on alder, beech, and poplar. However, if you begin scouting the forests in your area, chances are you will find it mostly on white and yellow Birch.
Chaga is found on birch trees in the more northern parts of Europe, Asia, as well as in Canada. In the United States you can find this mushroom in the northeastern areas of the United States. You can also find Chaga in the more southern areas of the United States, on cherry birch trees.
The mushroom is often ignored since it resembles an uneven growth, and it’s often located a few feet up the tree. If you look closer at the mushroom, you will notice that it looks like burnt charcoal, and its size may vary based on age. Once fully grown, Chaga can reach up to 19 inches in width and height and can have an overhang of about 12 inches.
Thanks to its color and form, Chaga is quite noticeable against light birch bark. While some may confuse it for a tree growth due to its blackish exterior resembling other tree growths, the interior is what helps you make sure you’ve found the Chaga mushroom. Chaga has an orange interior, and once you cut the mass off the tree using a saw, you should notice orangish sawdust floating around.
The orangish color of the mushroom comes from the iron and copper properties as well as its many other vitamins, minerals, and nutrient content.
Compared to other mushrooms, Chaga forms on trees when they are damaged and is considered the scar or scab that forms on damaged Birch or other sap-producing trees. While it is believed it forms as it pulls the beta-glucans and other constituents from the tree, there isn’t much information regarding how the spores enter the trees. Also, this mushroom hasn’t been successfully cultivated by humans in any way.
Although it’s a slow-growing mushroom, Chaga becomes large with age, and the larger the mushroom you find, the older it is. I often harvest average-sized mushrooms since the larger the mushroom, the higher the chances it has been influenced by the surrounding environment. You should know that the mushroom absorbs constituents from the tree, but it can also absorb pollutants from the air. It’s recommended to harvest the mushroom only from clean environments.
Experienced foragers treasure this mushroom since it contains various vitamins, minerals, and nutrients such as B-complex vitamins, vitamin D, potassium, rubidium, cesium, amino acids, fiber, copper, selenium, zinc, iron, manganese, magnesium, and calcium.
Even more, Chaga is credited as being the mushroom with the highest recorded concentrations of antioxidants, which provides many health benefits to the human body.
Health benefits of Chaga
While Chaga is old folk medicine, the health benefits of this mushroom are known mostly in Europe and Asia. Russians and Scandinavians have known about the mushroom’s health benefits for a long time and the word Chaga is actually derived from an old Russian word that means mushroom. Even so, the use of this mushroom is much older than we initially believed since it was discovered in the pouch of Otzi the Iceman, a well-preserved mummy dating back 5,300 years ago.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, the medicinal properties of Chaga were recognized formally in various medical texts, and it became a folk remedy for treating cancer, gastritis, ulcers, and tuberculosis.
However, until 1950 the mushroom was hardly known by the rest of the world, and only after Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a famed Russian author, and Nobel laureate, published his novel Cancer Ward the mushroom became known to the entire world.
Since the 1950s, more than 2,000 scientific papers have researched the health benefits of the Chaga mushroom. These papers have shown that Chaga supports a strong immune system, provides anti-inflammatory benefits, and supports heart health. It also promotes good digestion and potentially plays a role in cancer prevention, just to name a few things.
Regarding its cancer-killing properties, you will find various sources claiming that it works in destroying cancer cells, and given the properties, it contains, those claims might be true. In fact, one thing that proves Chaga has cancer-fighting properties is the fact that Japan is using the mushroom in conjunction with chemotherapy as an experiment to turn on killer cells.
While every Chaga mushroom can be beneficial for your health, many believe that the kind harvested from the birch tree is actually the best one for herbal preparations since it contains more beta-glucans and saccharides.
Also, as suggested before, the size of the mushroom has little to do with the health benefits as long as you harvest it from a clean environment. The more important thing you need to pay attention to is the interior color of the mushroom. The brighter orange the interior is, the better. The outside of the mushroom may be very dry and sometimes show signs of mildew, so be cautious when harvesting it.
Regarding the harvesting time, I recommend collecting the mushroom in autumn, or better yet, in the middle of winter when temperatures are below 40 degrees for 2-3 weeks. This is when the nutrient density of Chaga is the highest, and its constituents and health benefits are most potent.
You can harvest the mushroom using a saw or hatchet, but even a hammer will do if you have nothing else available. Remove the visible fruiting body (conk) and get it inside. Since the mushroom grows at various heights, you will need to do a little bit of tree climbing, or better yet, pack along a telescoping hand saw.
Drying and storing Chaga
After you harvest the mushroom, you may need to use a brush to remove any signs of dirt and then rinse the freshly foraged mushroom in fresh water to remove any remaining debris or insects that may be hiding in its many crevices.
Once you’ve cleaned the Chaga mushroom, you will need to remove most of the black crust, and then you can break it into fist-sized (or smaller) chunks for the drying process. Breaking the conk into smaller pieces speeds up the drying and prevents mold from growing.
The drying should be done in a cool and dry location, and you need to dry the mushroom until it is light and bone dry. Drying usually takes a month or even more.
Once the mushroom is dried, it should be stored in an airtight container. If you store it in paper bags or other types of containers, it will absorb moisture from the air, and mold will form. I store the mushroom in Mason Jars.
Some prefer to grind Chaga like coffee and then steep or cook it, but that’s not a general rule. You can store it as chunks and use them as needed.
The thing you should know about Chaga is that it’s not a one-time use only medicine, and it’s more of a long-term-commitment medicine. You don’t take it for a few weeks and expect to magically get well. It’s recommended to take it over a long period in small dosages because doing so will maximize its health benefits.
In the Ural Mountains, people take it daily, and they don’t wait to get ill in order to use the Chaga mushroom. It is believed that taking it daily is one of the factors that help them maintain their health and longevity.
You can use Chaga in numerous ways, but the top three uses in Europe and Asia are as a double extract, tea, and applied topically.
The double extract is preferred by many, although the combined, double alcohol and water extraction may seem complicated at first. This double extraction takes about three months to make, and it helps isolate triterpenes and sterols like inotodiol, trametenolic acid, and betulinic acid, which are non-water soluble, and the beta-glucans which are water-soluble.
Chaga double extraction tincture
To make a Chaga tincture, you will need to use a combination of hot water and ethanol extraction process. There are two phases you need to do in order to obtain the tincture.
- Cut the Chaga into small chunks or grind it into small granules.
- Place the chunks or granules in a large, clamp seal jar and fill the jar about 2 inches from the top.
- Pour ethanol or vodka into the jar, making sure it tops the Chaga and as close to the rim of the jar as possible.
- Close the jar and place it in a dark room that’s not too hot. Let the jar sit for 8 weeks, but make sure you shake the jar every 2 days so that the Chaga chunks absorb as much liquid as possible.
- After 8 weeks, get a sealable glass jar or another suitable container that is at least twice the volume of alcohol you’ve used. You will need it to add the water from phase 2, so make sure it can accommodate all the tincture you will be making, regardless of how you want to bottle it.
- Take a metal sieve with a fine mesh, and strain the alcohol into the container. Set this alcohol aside as you will add it back to the concentrated water decoction once it is completed.
- Transfer the Chaga chunks or granules to a large enamel pot and add water twice as much as the volume of alcohol you set aside.
- Bing the Chaga and water to a boil, and then reduce the heat and simmer.
- Simmer until half the water has evaporated, and then turn off the heat.
- Cover the pot and let it cool until the next day.
- For the next few days, you will need to repeat the process. Add enough water to have the initial quantity as described in step 1) and repeat steps 2,3, and 4.
- After three water extractions, you will need to strain the liquid into the container where you stored the alcohol from phase 1.
- It’s also recommended to wrap the Chaga chunks or granules in a few layers of cheesecloth and squeeze as much water out of it as you can.
You will have the Chaga tincture in the container, and this mixture of the alcohol and water extraction is recommended to be stored in smaller bottles and use as needed. Shake the bottles before each use.
This Chaga tincture is concentrated, and the recommended daily dose is 2 ml (40 drops) for an 8-ounce cup of tea. I also take it with water, and besides the tincture, I add ½ teaspoon of maple syrup since I find the taste more enjoyable.
Chaga tea recipe
To make Chaga tea, you can use 2-3 teaspoons of grounded Chaga powder to a cup of water.
Place the grounded Chaga into a cup and add boiled water directly over it. Let it steep for 10-15 minutes, and then drink it hot.
I often use grounded Chaga, but I also use 1-inch pieces when available. I often used 1 ounce of Chaga pieces to 4 cups of water. I bring the water to a gentle bubble, then let it simmer for about 45 minutes to 2 hours, depending on the preferred strength.
You can also strain the chunks and let them dry, then reuse them again 3-4 times. They will become weaker over time, and once you notice you are obtaining a weak tea rather than a dark cup of tea, you need to discard those pieces and use new ones. I prefer this method because I place the chunks in the pot, and leave the pot on the stove. I add more water each day when I want to make a fresh cup of tea.
If you make tea, 1 – 1 ½ cups of tea is the recommended dose per day. Some folks like to add ginger or cinnamon to their Changa tea, but I only add ½ teaspoon of honey or maple syrup.
Using it topically
As mentioned before, Chaga is also used topically due to its anti-inflammatory properties. The tincture or the tea can be used to make various creams and lotions. As a matter of fact, Alaskan and other Native American tribes used Chaga chunks/powder mixed with fat in order to treat skin inflammation and skin irritation. They would simmer Chaga in animal fat, let it cool and apply it to the skin.
Chaga is a special mushroom with many health benefits and is not just part of folk medicine. The scientific communities all over the world are researching the properties of the mushroom in human trials, and the many benefits of functional mushrooms continue to unfold. Consider making it part of your wellness routine, and you won’t regret it.
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