Chaga (Inonotus obliquus) fungus – somehow the “hard” nature of the fungus makes it difficult for us to think of it as a “mush”room – is now gaining popularity, at least in the northeast where it is relatively easy to find and collect due to the prevalence of birch growing here. A lot has been posted on chaga collection, preparation and use – especially from such fanatic experts as Daniel Vitalis who has posted basically “all you want to know” about chaga via his YouTube channel. My input on the subject will be more about my observations / opinions on preparation and use, as well as why I feel chaga is as beneficial as I believe it is – which is based on my own opinion and personal use over the last 4 and a half years.
As my most recent edit, I am making note here of something I just discovered, that is many times mistakenly reported and misunderstood at the very least. The sterile chaga “conks” that is referred to as chaga is not an actual mushroom at all, but is the birch tree’s reaction to being infected by the “real” mycelium of the Inonotus obliquus mushroom (I think of it as similar to the scarring that the human body manufactures in response to being injured). The “fruiting body” (what we all would refer to as a “mushroom”) doesn’t actually show up until the infected tree has been dead for several years – long after any usable conks have been harvested from the tree. This wasn’t discovered until around 1938, when the relationship of the conk to the fruiting body was proved.
When I trace my opinion of why chaga is so beneficial, you’ll have to bear with me as I have found it easier to start from past experiences that seemed to have no correlation, but that now seem to me to point all in one positive direction. Basically, this long thread of thought starts with my Mother’s sister, my aunt Mary McCarthy. Back in the 1960’s, among all the great times and experiences I remember about Mary, one memory that stands out was that she used to get “gold” shots – somehow, and I’m not sure how, back then her doctor was giving her shots that contained some form of mineral gold that was thought to be beneficial to her (and by her).
Fast forward here to the early 1980’s when upon moving to our new home/mini-farm in northern Maine we started tapping some of the surrounding sugar maple trees for some personal-use maple syrup. Through my research that was based in Mother Earth News and Harrowsmith magazine, I ran across an article on tapping birch trees. Due to the fact that birch sap starts running every spring after maples stop flowing, they are a perfect addition to someone who has a sap evaporator since it allows them to get a second season out of their equipment investment. We tried this with some success, and despite the drawback of birch having much less sugar per volume of sap than maple – requiring much more time and fuel per pint of outputted syrup (and despite another drawback of spoilage that can leave off-tastes if you don’t immediately run the sap through an evaporator since the sap will not keep as well as maple sap). Research also told me that the fresh sap was considered by the Russians of many years past to be a health tonic – so much so that the Russians wiped out whole forests of birch due to their slashing methods of gathering sap which damaged the trees much more than merely boring a hole and inserting a tap.
Another factoid that I filed away at the time, and which I now latch onto as a source of my theory here is that the USGS uses birch trees to find gold. The trees are more deeply rooted and feed deeper than most trees, and their sap contains minerals that their roots find deep in the ground. The USGS takes sap of birches on a grid-like basis – every so may feet – and compares the sap to find larger concentrations of gold, and therefor to find what areas that could be mined.
I think by now you may be able to guess where I’m going with this, but whether you do or not at this point I would like to introduce the chaga conk, which is known to be high in minerals and arguably the highest form of concentrated anti-oxidant of any natural source. Chaga conks slowly grow on the birch tree as the tree reacts to the infection of the mycelium Inonotus obliquus, and what it really does is form a concentrate of everything found in the birch itself. Chaga is concentrated birch tree. Of all the gold and other minerals, and anti-oxidants including SOD (superoxide dismutase) that are found within deep feeding birch trees – an extremely high concentration ends up within the flesh of the chaga fungus. (A look at the amounts of anti-oxidants in comparison to the other best known sources can be found here: Wild Harvested Chaga Mushroom “The King of Herbs”, and a PDF from an article in the Journal of Health and Healing called “The Healing Powers of Wild Chaga – An Interview with Cass Ingram, MD”.) With all those concentrated minerals, I’m believing that I get at least the same benefit from gold and other minerals as my aunt Mary did – without the hypodermic needles, and on a daily regimen rather than monthly.
My only other variance with some of the experts is what I’ve come up with as my preferred method of preparation of chaga for personal use. I disagree with those that take various amounts of larger chunks of chaga, place them in a pot of water, and boil the heck out of it. According to some, this is the best method of releasing everything into the water so as to be able to access it when drinking. My contention is that if you finely grind the chaga, thereby increasing the surface area that is exposed to the hot water, you will get the same – if not a better – affect than by the long boiling process. In fact, in an article I found, the author not only finds boiling of chaga destructive to certain compounds including proteins, sterols, enzymes, SOD, catalase and peroxidase, as well as RNAase and DNAase, he also recommends temperatures never to exceed 150 to 180 degrees Fahrenheit. For many years now, I’ve made my coffee with the best method of getting the most caffeine and flavor from the freshly ground beans – a French press. So for several reasons – consistency with my normal work flow, conserving fuel (pouring hot water over the ground chaga versus boiling for hours on a stove), plus probably some psychological subconscious urge to try replacing coffee in my lifestyle – treating chaga nearly the same as coffee (except for the steeping time, 2 hours for chaga versus 20 minutes for coffee) works best for me. (Due to the extra time, needing to steep in hot water and not lose the heat, and also have the heat in the finished product much as my standard French press coffee, I found the best French presses were what I’ve used for coffee for years – they are stainless steel and built with a vacuum barrier much like a thermos bottle. You can find them here at Liquid Planet and they come in all sizes from travel mug size to 48 ounces).
Almost without trying I’ve not only been able to reap the benefits of chaga by drinking several cups daily in much the same manner as coffee, but I found my desire for coffee just fade away – I still love the taste, and sometimes drink a couple cups during certain days, but I also sometimes go several weeks without it and not only don’t seem to miss it, but also never get the usual slight headache I had always noticed when missing coffee a day after having had it. I’ve seen and read of chaga being attributed with all sorts of powers and effects, but with me I can say I am much more regular than at any time prior to using chaga, and that I sleep much better and am more relaxed (but of course, some of the latter is probably due to much less caffeine in my system). I’ve also found myself much less likely to get a cold or flu when they come around, and this probably due to the regular dose of antioxidants.