Treasure Hunting in Local Woods: I Found Chaga!

Treasure Hunting in Local Woods: I Found Chaga!

When you think about powerhouse mushrooms, you might conjure up locations like China, Tibet, or some mountain in South America. Since mushrooms, their extracts, and teas have been used in the most ancient traditional practices of medicine, this isn’t an inaccurate logical jump.

But outside of Pittsburgh?

Yep, we have them here too. It shouldn’t actually be surprising, with our distribution of woods, the ideal climate, higher elevations, and the fact that Native Americans were making use of this land for centuries. It’s just exciting to know some of these things grow literally 15 minutes away from my house. Since starting to forage closer to home, I’ve found Chaga, along with Turkey Tail, Reishi, and the elusive Morel.

Chaga is found only on Birch trees, and can be spotted any time of year, since it’s a perennial. If you find something like Chaga on another tree, it can be a similar fungus, but since it isn’t on Birch, it isn’t truly the medicinal shroom we’re looking for, and it might even be loaded with cyanide, so be careful. It isn’t technically a mushroom either, it’s a fungal mycelium. Most mushrooms we’re familiar with are the “fruit” of the fungi, like a bloom. In the case of Chaga, it’s the body of the fungus itself growing out of the wood of the tree, and it will eventually consume it entirely. It grows quite slowly, only a few cubic inches per year, but it’s relatively easy to find. It was named by the Khanty people in Western Siberia, and it’s first documented use was in 16th century Russia.

If you go Chaga harvesting, the pieces you break off will be very hard, but be aware that they are not dry. If you’re going to use them quickly, you can refrigerate them, but dehydrating them is my first choice. You’ll want to break them up into smaller chunks so they dry faster, and if you’ve been in the raw food movement at all, you’ll be familiar with the idea of keeping your dehydrator temperature below 115 degrees to keep the enzymes stable. Pro tip: Chaga is really super hard, even when it’s fresh. Expect to use a hammer and chisel or screwdriver to assist you in your harvest.

There are a few ways to prepare Chaga for consumption, and what you make depends on your goals. Once boiled, the resulting tea contains certain polysaccharides and anti-cancer components that are otherwise inaccessible to our bodies. Unfortunately, boiling destroys quite a lot of the other good stuff it contains, such as enzymes, proteins, superoxide dismutase, and sterols that we can derive great benefit from. We can also grind Chaga into a very fine powder, then extract these beneficial compounds with a high proof alcohol. I’ve used vodka for this with excellent results. (And I went with vodka because I’m a good Ruski.)

For a boiled tea, add the Chaga when the water is still cold, bring the water to a boil, then simmer for about an hour. Your tea will be a deep reddish brown. For a simmered tea, you want to make sure the water does not go above 160 degrees, and some people have simmered theirs for several days at a time. While I don’t know if this extended simmering brings more nutrients out, I simmer mine for about 6 hours. It winds up being a very deep brown, and I sip it like coffee. It has a very earthy flavor as you might expect, but it isn’t bitter or overly strong. In the summer, I pour it over ice to make a very diluted cold drink I can sip on all day. The alcohol extraction takes longer, about 6 weeks of steeping in your alcohol of choice, and it will again be a very dark color. Grind your Chaga to a fine powder, mix with your alcohol, let sit, then strain it into dropper bottles. You’d only want to use one dropper-full as a dose, since this is like a concentrate, and is powerful stuff. You probably wouldn’t have any side effects if you used more, but you wouldn’t see any extra benefits either.

Did somebody say benefits? That’s right, we don’t just play with mushrooms because they’re tasty and pretty. Chaga is one of the most powerful fungi you can get your hands on. I mentioned earlier that they have been used in the treatment of cancer, and there are some early studies being done that show promise. The more people that know how to use wild plants for health, the better! There is an impressive collection of studies for its health promoting effects overall, and it has the highest ORAC score of anything, by far. This means it has loads and gobs and tons of the antioxidants we so desperately need to combat all the oxidative stress we’re constantly dealing with. Chaga is an amazing immune regulator, it’s highly anti-inflammatory, and helps our bodies to overcome infections from bacteria and viruses. Chaga has been effectively used to improve digestive conditions, including the treatment of ulcers (which is caused by a spirochete bacteria called H. Pylori.) It’s been recently called the King of the Mushrooms for its great healing abilities, though the claim that it was titles thus in ancient times is unfounded. My favorite part though is its unique longevity potential. Cultures in China and Siberia revered this fungus for its life extending capabilities, and we’re finding in modern times that this rings true.

And as a final note, if you don’t have Chaga in your literal back yard, don’t despair. There are more and more intrepid mushroom hunters who are harvesting this fungal black gold and drying it, grinding it, and preserving it, ready to ship to you. PrimalHerb and Surthrival are the highest quality I’ve found.  Harvesting Chaga isn’t for everyone, but the fact that it is fairly easy to find for those skilled in woodcraft means that the price to get your hands on some will fit almost any budget.

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