Medicinal Mushrooms

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!


The Restorative Reishi

The white growing tip of these younger reishi means that they are still actively maturing.

Something subversive is brewing in the dimly lit depths of my pantry. Two mason jars sit atop a nondescript white shelf, stuffed with thinly sliced reishi mushrooms steeping in cheap vodka.

Sounds innocent enough, right? Yes, my reishi moonshine is entirely safe and legal, but something tells me that Big Pharma would be less than thrilled about my wildcrafted mushroom tincture concoction. While I certainly see a place for Western pharmaceuticals – they saved my mother’s life three times – there is something empowering and paradigm shifting about finding medicine in the woods instead of at the drugstore.

Many popular pharmaceuticals have active ingredients isolated from plants or fungi or synthetic analogs of these chemicals, but we forget about the natural sources of our medicines when we encounter them as brightly colored pills encased in plastic. It’s no surprise we now take aspirin instead of willow bark tea – turning a plant into a pill makes it easier for a pharmaceutical company to regulate, patent and market a drug.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this, but I am weary of the way it makes us overlook the inextricable connection between human health and ecological health. Perhaps if we were more accustomed to foraging for medicine in the forest, we would think twice before chopping down rainforests that could hold cures to our most menacing diseases, not to mention mitigating our most noxious assault on planetary health – global warming. Any assault on planetary health is ultimately an assault on our own health, but it is easy to overlook this when we cling to the myopic and antiquated notion that technology and medicine will extricate us from whatever environmental quandaries we may face.

Don’t be fooled by the boxes of Annie’s Mac & Cheese – something subversive is brewing in my pantry . . .

Finding a wild reishi mushroom – be it the varnished red Ganoderma tsugae on hemlock in the Northeast and Southwest; the varnished yellow-ocher G. curtisii in southern New England and throughout the central and southeastern states; or the varnished red G. lucidum in southern New England and stretching across the seas into Europe and Asia – can be quite a magical experience. Even though I find reishi regularly in hemlock forests around Ithaca from May through July, I still am mesmerized every time I see a tree covered in them, in all their glossy glory. Reishi are hard to mistake for any other conk mushroom, with their gradient of lacquered red, orange, yellow, and white hues. As a rule, if the conk you are holding is breathtakingly beautiful, you have found a reishi.

Emerging reishi mushrooms make a delicious and medicinal appetizer when lightly sauteed. Because reishi has an indeterminate growth habit, most specimens will grow back after being cut. Nonetheless, I harvest babies sparingly.

As if its looks were not enough, reishi is reputed to have analgesic, anti-allergic, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antioxidant, antitumor, antiviral, anti-HIV, and blood pressure reducing effects. Before reishi cultivation became widespread, in China it was a rare wild mushroom reserved for royalty and their ilk. The Chinese names for reishi – Mushroom of Immortality, Ten-Thousand Year Mushroom, and Herb of Spiritual Potency – reflect its status as a panacea.

Reishi belongs to a class of herbal medicines called adaptogens, a group which includes ginseng, the only other natural medicine traditionally revered quite as highly by the Chinese. Adaptogens are reputed to enhance the body’s overall ability to cope with physical and mental stress. Reishi can be taken acutely when you feel the onset of a cold, but the system strengthening effects may not fully set in until several weeks of daily use in small doses.

Reishi tincture is expensive, and I find making it myself with local conks to be very satisfying. To impart the full spectrum of medicinal components, I make a double extraction tincture that contains both reishi’s alcohol and water-soluble constituents. I already have two additional large mason jars of tincture brewing since the photograph of my pantry distillery was taken!

Last year's reishi mushrooms are no longer of any use medicinally, but they're still eye-catching.

For medicine, it is most efficient and ethical to harvest relatively mature conks. The white growing tip should be very thin or gone, and the overall color gradient should fade to a deeper, but still vivid, red.  If you see a tree or stump that has conks growing directly above one another, look for the thin layer of brown spores that the mature reishi drop on top of their host-mates below. Unlike the perennial artist’s conk, reishi is an annual polypore that will fruit quite reliably every year on the same tree until it has consumed all available substrate. Take care not to consume last year’s reishi, distinguished by their uniform deep maroon cap, softer surface and turquoise rot on the dull brown pore surface.

I have taken a dropperful of reishi tincture almost daily for a couple of years (with occasional breaks), and I have noticed a marked increase in my body’s ability to fight off the common cold. I’m not sure the relaxing effect has fully kicked in yet, but who knows; perhaps if I didn’t take reishi tincture I’d be even more excitable than I already am!

Artist’s Conk: Canvas of the Forest

Artist’s conk (Ganoderma applanatum) is a humble but fascinating fungus. It is ubiquitous not only in the Northeast, but in the majority of American and Canadian forests and suburbs. Here is a perennial species that clearly has an effective survival strategy, and can live well over a decade. If you cut a specimen in half, the number of layers reveals the age, like tree rings.

The artist’s conk is a polypore, meaning it has pores instead of gills or teeth to release its spores. Polypores can be distinguished from other pored mushrooms, like the boletes, by their typically woody, shelf-like form, projecting straight out of tree trunks or logs.  There are no poisonous polypores in the Northeast, but most are inedible due to their woody, rubbery, or fibrous textures.

With that said, some of my favorite fungi are polypores, such as maitake (Grifola frondosa), a superb and versatile cooking as well as medicinal mushroom, and reishi (Ganoderma tsugae and its close relative Ganoderma lucidum), a varnished pharmacy of the forest. In China reishi is called Lingzhi, and is considered a panacea only perhaps matched by ginseng in its adaptogenic properties.

Unlike the slightly fleshier reishi, the artist’s conk is woody through and through. While the artist’s conk is similar to the reishi in shape and size, its color palate is decidedly more subdued. Its cap surface is shades of brown and gray with a white, slightly softer growing tip on younger specimens. The pore surface on the underside of the cap is solid white, staining brown.

You can make intricate drawings on this surface with any sharp-pointed object such as a stick or the tip of a dull pencil. This makes a great art project for kids, that grown-ups are bound to get equally excited about! Make sure to carve them soon after picking for the boldest line, and be aware that the pore surface stains easily. After carving, you can simply let them dry out on their own with the pores facing up. Some artists choose to apply a finish, but the specimen will preserve itself for years either way.

As a perennial fungus, artist’s conks are one of the only mushrooms that can be found in all four seasons in the Northeast. In the winter you cannot etch on the pore surface, but you can still paint on it. Being in a drought mentality, the artist’s conk has been on my mind a lot recently. I see large, fresh specimens almost every time I go into the woods, at a time when few other mushrooms are fruiting. They can tolerate almost any habitat where there are dead and dying hardwoods, but have a particular affinity for lowlands. Their rich fungal aroma makes me long for porcini and maitake, but unfortunately even the youngest specimens are bitter and too woody to eat. Instead, the artist’s conk can be made into a medicinal tea or tincture, which mycologist Paul Stamets claims has strong antimicrobial and immune enhancing properties.

Young Artist's Conk - Can you see the face in the wood?

The only thing one might confuse the artist’s conk for is the red-belted polypore, distinguished by its red stripe near the growing tip. Like the artist’s conk, the red-belted polypore is innocuous and woody. Undoubtedly, the artist’s conk is a fixture of the world’s forests, and a very rewarding and safe mushroom to learn how to identify. If only it tasted good!

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