Franklin Countys First News

Chaga: One ugly mushroom with a healthy reputation

Chaga in raw form, crushed up and as a cup a tea.

The Chaga mushroom  in raw form, at center and ground  up,  at right. A  cup of Chaga tea at left.

By Patty Cormier

A few weeks ago, I had my first cup of Chaga tea and I liked it. Since then, I have been drinking it every day.

This came about because a forester I work with had been drinking Chaga tea for a while, and couldn’t say enough good about it, so I had to try it. I knew this forester didn’t do anything without extensive research, especially when it came to drinking a mushroom.

Chaga or Inonotus obliquus is a fungal parasite, which looks like a blackened, crusty, bursting tumor. Yum! Sounds and looks delicious, doesn't it? Sarcasm aside, once its ground into a powder, it really looks and tastes like coffee without the bitterness. It grows on a few different species of trees, but the usable variety only grows on yellow and white birch trees.

Being parasitic, it kills the host tree eventually as it is essentially sucking the nutrients right out of the tree; nutrients that are potentially good for us. As its reputation as a cancer-fighting mushroom has grown, so too, has its popularity. Many know it as a tinder fungus, popular among outdoor survivalists as it lights quickly with a weak spark and forms a good coal to use to kindle a fire.

Chaga is interesting. The fungus, which grows very slowly, is geographically restricted to colder habitats so Maine is one of those habitats. There have been estimates that it can be found on one in 15,000 trees. With its popularity growing, there are concerns of over-harvesting, so attempts have been made at cultivating the mushroom with varying successes.

mushroom on a Yellow Birch tree

Chaga mushroom grows on a yellow birch tree.

One of the compounds found in birch trees is betulin or betulinic acid (compounds which are used as anti-HIV agents) is not digestible by humans, but the mushroom converts it to a usable form which we can ingest. The cultivated form of Chaga does not have those compounds.

Archival records show that the mushroom has been used since the 16th century as a remedy for cancer, gastritis and ulcers among other things. A clinical trial was completed in the 1950s on a small pool of patients diagnosed with cancer. Some of those treated showed a reduction of tumor size, decrease in pain, better sleep and general feelings of appetite. Most of the patients were breast cancer patients.

There have been other studies, the most recent in 2005, but the use of Chaga has not been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. However, at most health food stores there will be quite a few Chaga supplements available. You can even buy it as I use it, ground up, just like coffee grounds.

In my daily work with woodlot owners, I am getting more requests to show folks what it looks like. It is great to see people taking an interest in their woods, and what is in those woods.

The most important thing you should know if you are thinking of collecting Chaga is tree identification. Learn what white and yellow birch look like. Also make sure you are on your own land or get permission. Much the same as collecting fiddleheads or some other wild-gathered food, the best courtesy is to ask the landowner first.

Look for the big black charcoal-looking mass, and use a hatchet to make a clean cut. I have found it more on birch in poorly drained areas and often find the mushroom growing from where the tree has been injured. Keep in mind, too, for the forest to provide a sustainable product, we can’t just go out and remove it all. After I collect it, I let it dry out and then use a hammer to reduce it enough to go in the coffee grinder. I use 2 teaspoons per cup in my K-cup coffee maker.

I am by no means any kind of expert on this mushroom, but I am enjoying the tea and hoping that some of the health benefit claims are true. The forester who got me interested in trying it claims, “Since drinking the tea, I have felt an improvement in my general health. I admit I have no idea if it is because of the ugly mushroom, but I choose to believe so.”

Fair enough. I would encourage anyone interested in the mushroom to do his or her own research and you never know, it might some day provide a woodlot owner or two another opportunity to make a little money off their woodlot.

Patty Cormier of Farmington is a District Forester with the Maine Forest Service.

(A version of this article was first published in a SWOAM newsletter and was posted here with permission by its author.)

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11 Responses »

  1. I've been drinking chaga tea for close to 6 months now for breast cancer diagnosis. The anti-oxidants it contains are off the charts compared to blueberries! I had also been drinking essiac tea (available at End of the Rainbow) for same reason so it made perfect sense to me to combine the two to create one powerfully healthy concoction. Please be mindful of harvesting responsibly, it is a resource that takes years to grow!

  2. I have seen a number of specimens over the last few years, and all have been too high to chisel at while standing on the ground. I have tried using a pruning saw, but chaga is too hard for the saw. Anyone have any ideas?

  3. I wonder how much of this has been burned up on our fire wood!! Hmmmmm!

  4. We have used a hatchet at times. Mixing it with some unsweetened Dark Ghardelli chocolate gives it quite a taste. You can certainly sweeten it with whatever you like to use but Maple syrup is our favorite. We put small chunks in a Vitamix and it pulverizes it to a fine powder for our coffee maker. You can reuse the grounds a few times also.

  5. I walk in the woods quite a bit, and when i find a hunk i grab it and chunk it up and put it in the freezer. The betulinic acid is only released if it is boiled or soaked in alcohol, according to my research. It has a slightly sweet taste that is enhanced with a little agave nectar! It makes a great iced tea also.

  6. I believe when I researched chaga years ago, it was recommended that you shouldn't ingest or handle chaga if you are pregnant. Please do your research to ensure this limited resource is not needlessly over-harvested. And please respect the landowner to prevent those ever-increasing no trespass signs.

  7. In response to Jeanne's comment about chaga being burned in firewood. A native friend, who I recently shared the health benefits of chaga and essiac, has an overall concern for sustainability due to over-harvesting of chaga. This led him to have a conversation with a small outfit that manages woodlots and they are now on the lookout for trees (typically white and yellow birch) that they are harvesting. This is a reasonable and responsible approach.
    The ingredients of essiac tea can bought, grown and/or harvested locally. Two books "Chaga: King of the Medicinal Mushrooms" and "Essiac: A Native Herbal Cancer Remedy" are great resources! Also making a tincture out of chaga packs a powerful punch!

  8. The chaga mushroom does have a host of health benefits as research has shown. An important aspect of the chaga is that some of the research shows that the most important nutrient, betulin and betulinic acid is not able to be utilized by the body in just a hot water extraction. An alcohol extraction is necessary. My husband and I harvest and manufacture chaga extract. We had our chaga extracts analyzed by a world renowned laboratory a few weeks ago. Our chaga shows that our alcohol extraction process has a 50% greater antioxidant strength than just a hot water extraction process. Our website will be ready to launch within a few weeks, along with all of our research at northamericanmainechaga.com. I am a nurse and cancer survivor and have a life long interest in natural health. Thankfully, my step daughter, Kimberlee Lucas brought my attention to this mushroom two years ago. I also have an organic and natural skin care line that is being custom formulated by an FDA and organic certified manufacturer. My skin care line was created because of my concern with chemical and synthetic laden products that may have partly caused my history of skin cancers. I put a few drops of chaga extract into my hands and apply it to my face every night for added immune support directly on my skin. For further questions, my email address is info@myberryorganics,com.

  9. I thank a good friend of mine, who along with his wife have been drinking chaga tea for a good while now, for introducing me to it when I was diagnosed with bladder cancer. He gave me a bag of chaga pieces and told me to boil and steep them as I would tea. He freezes the pieces after straining off the tea and uses them several times. I went right on the tea, making it in batches. I found that the pure chaga irritated my colon a bit so i diluted it with water and added a green tea bag with something lovely like ginger peach. Yum! The cancer had already taken over my bladder so I don't know how much good the chaga did but I think it must have slowed it's progression. I lost a good part of what I came into this world with but am now cancer free. Five months later I went back for a CT scan check up and a lesion was found in my back. My surgeon was very concerned and ordered a PET scan. I went back on the chaga (should have stayed on it all along-dummy me) and 2 weeks later when I went back for the PET there was absolutely no sign of anything ever having been there. My surgeon said he was amazed as he thought surely we were in for some kind of treatments.
    Just saying.....
    Thanks for this Patty :-))

  10. Good article. A great book for more info is "Mushrooms for Health" by Greg A. Marley and can be purchased on Amazon or your favorite bookstore. He lives in Rockland, ME and writes about many local mushrooms that have health benefits.
    I have been drinking Chaga tea for a few years now and mix in some Turkey Tail mushrooms for the boil. It is best to boil the Chaga for a long time, some say 2 hours or more for best medicinal results. I boil 2 quarts on the wood stove during winter and save the tea in the refrigerator for later use. The strained off solids go into the freezer until I'm ready for another batch. It can be boiled multiple times but is strongest the first and each time it gets a little weaker. I have boiled the same Chaga 6-7 times and it still makes a good tea.
    Here's a good web site for Chaga and others:
    http://mushroom-collecting.com/mushroomchaga.html
    There is a lot written about Chaga so I suggest reading as much as you can about it and go from there.

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