Chaga: From Tree to Tea

A freshly harvested chaga sclerotium

My chaga eyes are on, and I am having trouble turning them off. Despite the disconcertingly warm winter, Northern Vermont still has powder stashes if you know where to look (if there’s one thing mushroom foragers and skiers have in common, it’s that we don’t disclose the locations of our coveted patches). 

I used to think of backcountry skiing as a way to get myself through the winter foraging dry spell, but now it is becoming a way to keep my foraging fever alive in the winter! Incidentally, sailing through the winter woods on skis is a great way to access remote terrain and find enough chaga (Inonutus obliquus) to cure a classroom of sniffly kindergarteners.

Now that my pantry is stocked with several mason jars of dried chaga, I am doing my best to resist the urge to harvest more. I intentionally left my chaga harvesting tool at home this morning when I set out for a ski, to ensure that I don’t wind up with a life time’s supply of chaga. Sure enough, I spotted several beautiful chaga sclerotia on yellow and paper birch throughout the ski, which I proudly pointed out to Jenna before skiing on.

Without a hatchet to harvest my finds or a camera to document them, I found a certain satisfaction in having a partner to share in the revelry each time my gaze fell upon another snow-capped sclerotium. Somehow, the thrill of discovery just never gets old.

Ari harvests chaga during a recent ski

I even found one sizable chaga sclerotium cohabitating a beech tree with another medicinal mushroom – the tinder conk. While I had read that chaga occasionally grows on alder, elm, hornbeam, and beech, this was the first specimen I had ever seen not growing on a birch tree. Further research is needed to determine whether chaga found on these other hosts has equal medicinal value to chaga on birch. Chaga growing on other hardwoods would likely have a different medicinal makeup, since some of chaga’s medicinal properties are derived from concentrating betulin and betulinic acid naturally occurring in the birch host.

Thank you to all the readers who commented on my recent post, “Chaga: A Remedy for Winter.” Your stories of chaga’s healing power are inspiring – who knew that our beloved feline and canine companions could also enjoy the flavor and medicinal properties of chaga?

Grated chaga ready to be simmered

Some of you asked for a recipe, and I don’t blame you – it’s not as if you can just take a chomp out of a raw, charred looking sclerotium. My favorite way to enjoy chaga is as a tea, since the heady flavor seems to contain the very essence of the forest. I find a cheese grater is very effective at breaking dried chaga into a coarse powder (just watch your fingers!). Let three tablespoons of ground chaga lightly simmer in two quarts of water for at least 20 minutes. You can reuse the strained grounds by adding more water and simmering for an additional 20 to 30 minutes.  Sometimes I’ll simmer as many as eight tablespoons of ground chaga in two quarts of water, creating a strong concentrate that I refrigerate and dilute before heating up to enjoy as tea throughout the week. 

While a decoction (tea) has powerful immune system boosting and antitumor properties, a double extraction tincture is the best way to extract the full range of water-soluble and alcohol-soluble components. Start by steeping ground chaga in 80 proof or stronger alcohol for three weeks. Then, use a cheesecloth to strain the infused alcohol out of the chaga pieces before simmering them in a small volume of water for 25 minutes.

Mix this decoction with the infused alcohol, and voila – you have a double extraction tincture. It should keep for a few years, provided the final tincture is at least 25% alcohol by volume. If you are mathematically inclined, this should be easy enough to calculate. If not, just start with at least 100 proof (50%) alcohol and mix in a very small volume of boiled down decoction to err on the side of caution. Check out Greg Marley’s Mushrooms for Health for a thorough description of the double extraction tincture process – this technique is also optimal for many other medicinal mushrooms.

Enjoy your home-brewed myco-medicine. Cheers!

Chaga: A Remedy for Winter

Of all the stately trees native to the Northeast, it is hard not to take a special liking to the paper birch (Betula papyrifera). Its peeling ivory bark, which happens to be an unparalleled fire starter, reveals a mini-sunset of yellow, salmon, and purplish hues on closer examination. Though it is native throughout the Northeast, the paper birch is most common in the Northern part of the region, where its cold hardiness gives it a competitive advantage. I recently moved to Burlington, VT, putting me in prime birch country.

If you live in this neck of the woods, you can take part in a special winter mushroom foraging ritual: the hunt for chaga (Inonotus obliquus), a powerful medicinal growing on older paper and yellow birch trees. Of course, if you have access to a nice birch grove then you can search for chaga during the summer months as well.

But let’s be honest: when the black trumpets and chanterelles are peaking, your eyes are going to be glued to the forest floor. Chaga is not the kind of mushroom that grows at the base of its host tree, like maitake. Instead, chaga typically grows in the middle to upper reaches of the birch’s trunk, meaning the medicinal mushroom forager must look up just as much as down. 

I was probably doing a bit too much looking up on a backcountry ski yesterday at Bolton Valley, when I flew off an unexpected mini-cliff and dislocated my shoulder. But hey, I did spot a couple nice chaga specimens, so perhaps it was all worth it.

Ari aims his forager’s eyes upwards into the birch canopy.

In the winter, all the ground-dwelling fungi are gone, so you can embark on a focused hunt for chaga by training your gaze upward and looking for black, charred-looking growths (called sclerotia) on the pale bark of paper birch trees. The leafless branches make it easy to spot chaga from far away – just look out for what appears to be a snow-capped black koala bear hugging birch trunks. 

You may need a ladder to reach your chaga, as well as a sturdy implement to harvest it. Now that I’m living in the North Country, I may have to pick up a hatchet to throw in my backpack on skiing forays along with my requisite Nalgene and PB & J.

Chaga usually grows on older but still living birch, so take care not to scar the tree as you collect your medicine. Responsible harvest of chaga does not harm the tree, as it is a parasitic fungus only found on birches that are already past their prime. It is of more benefit to you than it is to the host tree – like the revered reishi, chaga is a panacea with reputed antitumor, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-hyper-glycemic properties.

I also spotted the arboreal artist’s conk on my ski yesterday, but this perennial fungus loses its medicinal potency when the cold sets in. Chaga, however, retains its full medicinal value year-round, making it the only outlet for my foraging fanaticism in the dead of winter. When you return from your winter wandering with a satchel full of chaga, a hot cup of chaga tea will be just the remedy you need.

A bluebird day is a good excuse to go on a chaga foray!


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