Chaga mushrooms are a centuries-old wild foraged remedy for everything from high blood pressure to cancer. They fetch a high price in stores or online, but they’re a common, easy to identify mushroom that grows all over the world. It’s most commonly found on white and yellow birch trees, and once you’ve found a stand of birch there’s a good chance it contains Chaga mushrooms.
I’m happy to introduce the author of this guest post, Chef Markus Mueller of the stunning whole foods and foraging blog, Earth, Food and Fire. Marcus writes about foraging, cooking with wild edibles, and gardening to encourage others to eat real, from scratch foods at home every day.
(The information contained in this article should not be considered medical advice and should be used for informational purposes only. Nursing or pregnant women should seek the advice of a healthcare practitioner before consuming herbal remedies.)
Chaga mushroom, used for centuries as a herbal remedy in cultures around the world has in recent years been making a comeback in natural health circles and those looking to eat more natural foods. Hailed for its extremely high nutrient and antioxidant levels, Chaga has been used to treat numerous health conditions, including high blood pressure, and even some forms of cancer.
A fungus that grows predominantly on white and yellow birch trees in Northern climates, Chaga can be found around the world over. It grows wild in Russia, China, Northern Europe, and North America. Easy to forage yourself, the Chaga fungus is easiest to harvest in the winter, when there is no foliage to obscure tree trunks. The distinctly black conk stands out well in contrast to the white snow, and light bark of birch trees.
Benefits Of Consuming Chaga Mushrooms
Chaga is jam-packed with nutrients, mineral, antioxidants, and phytonutrients. This explains why the fungus has been used to treat a litany of ailments in various cultures around the world. Due to its high content of betulinic acid, Chaga tea and extract has even been used to treat some forms of cancer, though there is very little scientific evidence to back this up and more definitive research is needed.
Regardless of whether or not Chaga is the miracle cure it is said to be, it’s high content of vitamins, essential minerals, and nutrients help create an alkaline body state, and boosts your immune function boosting overall health and well being. Chaga has been known to reduce blood pressure, fight obesity and heart disease, improve cognitive function, and help flush the body of toxins.
Chaga is most often consumed as an extract, or brewed into a tea which is easily made at home. Chaga tea is surprisingly light in flavor, with a slightly sweet and fruity flavor. It makes a wonderful substitute for coffee in the mornings, and is a great, natural way to start your day! All that’s needed is a little Chaga that has been cleaned and dried and some hot water! Dried and ground, Chaga can also be added into soups, stews, and smoothies to add a nutrient boost to any recipe!
Where To Find & Forage Chaga
Luckily, Chaga is one of the easiest fungus’ to forage for food in North America. Available year round, the Chaga mushroom is technically a parasitic fungus that infects the heartwood of white and yellow birch. Once the infection takes hold, the fungus starts to grow towards the outside of the tree, before finally bursting through the bark and growing a sterile black conk or tumor, on the trunk of the tree.
Identifying & Harvesting Chaga
As mentioned, Chaga grows on white and yellow birch, though very similar looking fungus’ (fools Chaga) can grow on other species of trees. To avoid confusion, Chaga should only ever be harvested from birch trees, and only from living trees. Chaga should never be harvested from dead trees as the fungus dies when the tree dies.
The Chaga fungus and tree live in unison for up to 30 years before the fungus eventually kills the tree, at which point the fungus also dies and creates fruiting bodies to start the life cycle over again.
To make finding Chaga even easier, forage for the fungus in winter or early spring when there are no leaves to obstruct your view of the fungus. The black conk which is loaded with melanin, creating its black appearance, can grow to quite a large size and can be quite heavy. Take care if you are climbing a tree to get the Chaga.
Simply use an axe, hatchet or knife to break off a chunk or all of the Chaga. If you leave at least one-third of the fungus attached to the tree, the Chaga will continue to grow, allowing for another harvest in a few years.
Once the chaga has been harvested, it only needs to be cleaned and dried before it is used to brew chaga tea or is made into an extract or tincture.
- Rinse the freshly foraged Chaga mushroom in fresh water to remove any debris or insects that may be hiding in its many crevices.
- Break the Chaga into fist-sized chunks to speed drying and prevent mold from growing.
- Dry the Chaga in a cool dry location until it is light and bone dry. This usually takes about a month.
Once dried, the Chaga mushrooms can be further broken down into smaller chunks, or ground into a fine powder. Both sizes keep well as long as they are fully dried and kept in airtight containers. Finely ground chaga can be used to make smaller ‘single use’ batches of chaga tea, or be added directly to stews and other hearty recipes. Larger chunked chaga is ideal for brewing large batches of tea, and the chunks can be reused until the tea no longer produces a rich dark liquid.
Other Uses For Chaga Mushrooms
While the most common use for Chaga is as a nutritional supplement, chaga was also used by native cultures for other reasons.
When fully dried, Chaga makes an excellent ‘fire fungus’ due to its tenancy to smolder and not burn a flame. This allows you to light a piece of chaga, and allow the ember to smolder, enabling you to carry the ember with you from campsite to campsite. A fist sized chunk of chaga can easily smolder for 4 to 5 hours. The larger the chunk, the longer it will burn.
You can also use ground dried Chaga as a fire starter. All that’s needed is a flint and steel, to quickly light the dry powder.
The other benefit to Chaga is the sweet-smelling smoke it produces. This scented smoke was used as ‘smudge’ by native cultures to keep mosquitos and other flies at bay as well as an incense in spiritual applications.
About the Author
After working as a cook, and later as a Sous Chef in various fine dining establishments on the East Coast of Canada, Red Seal Chef Markus Mueller started Earth, Food and Fire to pass on everyday cooking, foraging, and gardening skills and encourage others to eat real, from scratch foods at home every day. Follow him on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter for more real food recipes, foraging, and gardening DIY!
More Mushroom Foraging Inspiration
Looking for other inspiration to get out mushroom foraging? Check out these other posts on foraging edible and medicinal mushrooms.
- Foraging Reishi Mushrooms
- How to Make a Medicinal Reishi Mushroom Tincture
- Foraging Chanterelle Mushrooms
- Foraging Morel Mushrooms
- Foraging Shaggy Mane Mushrooms
Or, try your hand at growing shiitake mushrooms.