What is Chaga, and why would you want to harvest some?
Chaga is a medicinal fungus, growing primarily on birch trees in the upper part of the northern hemisphere, it is used as an immune supporting supplement, and as a complimentary or natural treatment for various conditions such as Psoriasis, Stomach issues, Diabetes, immune disorders and even Cancer.
Most commonly people drink a decoction of Chaga as a “tea” for general immune support, in a similar way to how people you use elderberry tea or syrup, as a winter tonic especially. I usually replace one cup of coffee a day with Chaga tea.
For tea I boil 1 to 2 chunks around the size of a golf ball in half a gallon of water then let it simmer for 45 mins to an hour. Chunks can be frozen and reused until the tea becomes weak (usually a few times)
Modern usage and study.
More study is needed, particularly in human trials however there are some promising studies suggesting medicinal benefits, also several of the compounds in Chaga such as Betulinic acid already have studies showing medicinal benefits.
One notable recent study in Korea in 2004 showed human cells pretreated with a water extraction of wild Chaga conk showed a 40% reduction in DNA fragmentation than a positive control (Park et al., 2004) http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/biof.552210120/abstract
Along with whole Chaga chunks for tea you will find more potent double extracted tinctures such as those made by my partner Megan of Megans Herbal Apothecary which give you both the alcohol and water soluble compounds in an easy to take form.
How to identify Chaga.
You can find tips on identifying Chaga in my earlier blog post “Is this Chaga??” here https://edenwildfood.wordpress.com/2017/12/04/first-blog-post/
When to Harvest
Chaga is most commonly harvested in winter. Contrary to popular myth this is not due to any change in medicinal content, nor is it I believe particularly any more damaging to the tree to do so outside of this time period (although it’s probably best not to harvest whilst the sap is rising in spring).
The primary reasons to harvest in winter are:
Ease of locating it – No leaves on the trees make it much easer to spot Chaga at a distance. If your Chaga locations are snowy, this makes it stand out all the better.
Less chance of having mold issues – Cold weather inhibits mold growth, giving you additional time to dry and process your Chaga without it spoiling, summer harvesting would be very time sensitive.
Seasonality – Whilst Chaga takes many years to achieve a harvestable size, and persists on the tree year round, most foragers, even those primarily interested in medicinals, are busy in spring, summer and fall with an abundance of other plants and fungi. During the winter, where Chaga grows, there is little to nothing else to harvest, and I feel this is one major reason why traditionally this has been a winter harvest. I also find it’s a nice psychological boost in the depths of winter to be able to collect something useful when spring and the promise of the season to come is still many months away.
What to look for.
Look for older birch trees, especially in larger clusters. Chaga growths take many years to develop and tend to be found on the larger trees and those damaged by storms, especially near rivers and streams. You can and will find Chaga in mixed forests, but I’ve had my best luck in habitats where birch is the predominant species. You can find tree maps online which may help you locate likely areas to search.
It’s a numbers game – Cover lots of ground. I tend to drive round until I see a likely looking area of older birch, park safely, and spend some time hiking round on foot. Many times you will spot things on foot you’d never see simply by driving, it’s always worth a look, and winter exercise is invigorating. Make sure you bundle up.
Tools – What you’ll need to harvest.
A cutting tool.
I’ll start off by saying I prefer harvesting with an axe. Saws in my experience and observation do not allow the Chaga conk to regenerate well, the natural fracture point you achieve using an axe allows for better regeneration.
I have used several axes and my favourite is the Husqvarna hatchet, I have no relationship to the company I just find it to be the best suitably sized forged steel axe you can get for the money. I believe they are actually manufactured by Hults Bruks but are much cheaper than their own branded axes. If you shop around you can pick them up for around $35 . I have seen many people try and use very small hatchets, and I feel this results in lots of hacking and more chance of damaging the tree, a hatchet of the size this one above with a 1 1/2 to 1 3/4 lb head and a 13-15″ handle, that’s kept nice and sharp is the ideal tool for quickly and cleaning cutting the Chaga from the tree.
You could also use something like a masonry spike and a mallet to split pieces off if you felt this worked better for you, or if you are not confident handling axes.
A bag or carrying aid.
As most Chaga is out in the wilderness you’ll need something to help haul it out. Depending how much you are harvesting this can be something basic like a blue ikea bag, a rucksack, a large trappers basket etc. Even a small amount of weight carried a long distance can be tiring so definitely plan for this. You don’t want to store Chaga in anything plastic for a long time, as that can accelerate potential mold growth.
Megan with a trappers basket.
Personal protective equipment etc.
Chaga harvesting can be dangerous. Along with the usual dangers of winter hiking such as exposure, wild animals, trip and slip hazards etc, you will be handling axes or cutting tools, probably in the cold. My personal recommendations are.
- Gloves and warm clothing – keep hands warm, aid dexterity, protect from scraping against bark etc, prevent you from getting frostbite and exposure.
- Eye protection – Chaga has the tendency to fragment, especially the black outer surface, this can cause nasty eye injuries if you are not careful. I would recommend a pair of clear safety or ballistic glasses when harvesting.
- First aid kit – Axes are dangerous, you need to be prepared that if you do cut yourself, you fall over, or have Chaga you are cutting hit you and injure you, (it happens) that you are prepared to give yourself first aid.
- Phone with cell reception – Must be able to reach someone for help whenever you are out in the wilderness.
- Basic food and water – You will get hungry and thirsty, make sure you have some basic rations to support you on your hunt, it is easy to get carried away with the excitement of foraging and over extend yourself physically.
Once you have spotted the Chaga conk you want to harvest, position yourself on a steading footing at an angle, and make a cut close to the bark of the tree swiftly and confidently with an axe, trying to leave a small portion of the conk on the tree to aid in regrowth, be careful not to stand so close that the axe will bounce off and hit you should you make a glancing blow, and make sure anyone with you stands clear of the area whilst harvesting. Remove what you need and store it in your carrier, making sure to replace the sheath on your axe before moving on.
Do not try and harvest Chaga by standing face on to the growth, the outer surface is hard and this is an easy was to glance off, or miss and end up injuring yourself.
Processing and storage.
The biggest danger to Chaga once harvested is mold. Two types are prevalent, first and more commonly a white mold can develop on the black outer layer. This will form fairly quickly with too much heat or humidity when fresh, or later with improper drying or storage. Secondly the inner layer suffers from a greenish blue mold if left fresh or badly processed for long periods of time. Both of these are potentially bad for your health, and proper processing and storage is essential not only to ensure safety, but also so you don’t waste the precious resource you spent hours or days hunting and collecting.
White mold on Chaga from improper storage.
Breaking down for drying.
I try and break down and process my Chaga right away. Some people have good results using whole Chaga placing it whole near a wood burner etc, this could work ok where it is frozen in winter, but wouldn’t work as well in areas like Scotland or where you aren’t harvesting in winter. Personally I prefer to deal with the task at hand asap, and have it prepped and stored whilst my mind is on the task.
Below is an example of Chaga being broken down for drying. Id begin by splitting the Chaga conk down into half, then again, and continue in this fashion until you end up with pieces the size of a golf ball or similar. It’s best to wear your eye protection here again, and ensure you use a board or block to make splitting easier, and so you don’t injure yourself with your axe.
Chaga is best dried using a dehydrator. We use an Excalibur model, which is a more expensive high end consumer or commercial type dehydrator. I can’t recommend these enough, and if you have around $200 to spend and you do a lot of foraging for wild plants/mushrooms you’d like to preserve, or you like making jerky, drying your own home grown produce or making fruit leathers etc then this would be great for you.
Cheap dehydrators can be had online from around $35 new, and you often see them at thrift stores and yard sales for just a few dollars. These can work nearly as well for those drying small amounts of material.
Dry your Chaga chunks at a medium temperature. I have seen recommendations to dry Chaga at less than 50c (122F) to best preserve the medicinal compounds. I cannot confirm the validity of this, but I find doing this preserves the Chaga in a way where it seems to be stable, hasn’t cracked or degraded excessively and seems to store longer. I tend to run my dehydrator overnight, and on a lower temperature, if you don’t have a timer model, it’s less time sensitive. If you find your Chaga still seems damp at all (you can touch some to your lip to help test moisture level) then run it a little longer, timing will be down to how powerful your dehydrator is, and how full you fill it.
If you don’t have a dehydrator, and your oven has a very low setting, something like 100F then you could try using that with the door open a crack to allow airflow, or place it on a mesh rack near a furnace, radiator or wood burner and check it regularly. I have also seen people use fans to aid in drying. You can experiment using the tools you have available to you. Expect around a 40% dry yield vs fresh Chaga, so for every pound of fresh Chaga you harvest you can expect approximately 6 1/2 ounces of dried Chaga after drying.
(Chaga chunks ready for dehydrating)
Once dry you want to keep your Chaga in a cool, dry place, away from direct sunlight. Chaga will become easily bleached by direct sun. You can use an air tight container such as a glass mason jar, or any other air tight storage container. If you want to take an extra step for longer term storage, you can add some silica packs and oxygen absorbers to your container, however when properly dried and stored for up to a year I have never had an issue (I always rotate through my stock seasonally, and harvest Chaga fresh each year.
Thoughts on sustainability.
Chaga biology and growth cycle
Chaga is a fungal pathogen of birch trees. It is a heartwood rot fungus. Spores find their way into the tree through damage in the bark, broken limbs etc. The fungus then grows parasitically feeding off the tree, pushing its way out from the heart wood, through the bark, with the visible part being the established Sclerotia (Chaga conk). Eventually after many years it will kill the tree. Several years after the tree dies it releases its spores from under the shedding bark and thus continues the cycle.
These sporocarps are not often observed or recognised for what they are, which is probably why people are often not aware of this reproductive phase. It does take a long time for Sclerotia to form and emerge to harvestable size, which means many many more trees will be infected with the fungus than is visually apparent.
Where birch forests persist and are healthy, Chaga harvest should not in my opinion cause a sustainability issue, especially where sensible guidelines are followed. Harvesting the Sclerotia has not been shown to kill the fungal organism in the tree, or prevent it from producing spores once the tree has died. The real threat to the organism is not foraging, but as is true in most cases, habitat loss. As long as there are healthy birch forests, Chaga will persist as one of the predominant fungal pathogens of this habitat.
You often hear the claim by some, that Chaga is being “over harvested”. Nobody ever seems to be able to tell me what this really means however, and the majority of those making the claims are unable to even accurately describe to me how Chaga reproduces, or anything about it’s growth cycle.
I often find that what people really mean when I hear “over harvesting” is “well I wanted to harvest some, and I saw someone else had been collecting it”. By the nature of its collection it is obvious. It leaves a scar on the tree where the growth is removed, and I feel that the obviousness of the collection has led some to make these claims.
When people see something has been removed from nature they instinctively feel that there may be something wrong with that, they are having an irrational or emotional reaction to this, without a full understanding about what it is that they are seeing. I personally don’t feel such claims hold much weight, but am always open to reassessing the situation in the future.
The vast majority of commercially available Chaga in the USA and Europe is not domestic, it comes from the vast boreal forests of Siberia, which can support much higher demand than currently exists for this niche product. Commercially available Chaga is important for those who are geographically or physically unable to harvest their own, such as people in southerly areas or those with health conditions which Chaga could help with. Collection and sale of non timber forest products such as mushrooms and fungi can help bolster rural communities and keep them together offering additional income to those who are just subsisting. When people place value and use forests they become less vulnerable to real threats of environmental exploitation such logging, mining, fracking etc.
My personal ethical guidelines for harvesting.
- Harvest the largest Sclerotia (conks) you can find. Don’t harvest any smaller than fist size.
- Harvest only those easily accessible, don’t cut down or climb up trees, this naturally allows some Chaga to remain.
- Harvest only what you need for the year.
- Harvest by hand and limit yourself to what you can haul out on foot.
- Try to leave some of the conk on the tree where possible. Where there are more than one conk on a tree, leave at least one intact.
- Take care not to cut into or otherwise damage the tree.
- Don’t waste Chaga, process it quickly and carefully, and use it sparingly. Re-use chunks, and making extracts where suitable to conserve your supply.
Precautionary principle – pros and cons.
When talking about conservation the precautionary principle is often cited as best practice, or something to be aspired to. It is defined as “When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.”
This may sound like a good idea, after all, we all want to protect the environment don’t we? However I have real problems with this approach. Treating nature as a something to be looked at but not interacted with, to turn nature into an exhibit simply creates apathy, and a lack of understanding. It turns a generation off to engaging with the natural world.
Nature isn’t something that should be mothered, treated like a museum exhibit, and be put off limits to us. This simply makes it irrelevant to most people. Maintaining habitats through social and cultural interaction with nature is a key component in conservation in my opinion.
Most foragers I know are hugely passionate about the environment and sustainability. I feel that active, mindful and sustainable foraging, far from being damaging to the environment, is a catalyst for increased engagement with and interest in environmental protection.
For millennia ethnobotanical uses of wild resources have placed a social and cultural value on those plants, fungi and habitats. I believe this sort of engagement is a driving force toward a reconnection with nature that has been lost to us as a modern society.
One of the reasons I am so passionate about passing on my knowledge to others is that I feel I am helping to create a generation of nature lovers, of people who value the natural world, work with it, and hold it dear to their hearts. Through this connection and close relationship, will help fight to protect and maintain these habitats from the real threats to their existence for years to come.
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Copyright Matthew Normansell 2017 All rights reserved.