While living in Alaska I was introduced to chaga, Inonotus obliquus (pronounced chaw’-guh) which is a fungus that grows on living birch trees in the Northern Hemisphere. This shapeless black mass is approximately 10 to 30 feet up the trunk of an older tree.
The fungus that grows on the tree is known as “clinker polypore” and has a black, burnt-looking exterior and rust red interior. Chaga’s can average 10 to 20 inches in diameter and may reach a weight of 30 to 35 pounds.
Indigenous peoples have been using chaga for its curative properties for centuries. Siberians used it in stews, soups and beverages to boost physical stamina and attain a long life. In ancient writing, Chaga is described as “gift of nature,” “diamond of the forest” and “King of the herbs,” due to its healing ability and high nutritional content.
Chaga is known for super-oxide dismutase, an enzyme that functions as a powerful antioxidant. Another active ingredient is lanosterol, which helps the body rebuild cell membranes and supports the endocrine system. Yet another helpful constituent in chaga is the polysaccharide content which supports the immune system.
Chaga is harvested in cold regions like Siberia, Northern Canada, Alaska and Northern parts of the United States. Harvesting sustainably requires only the inner part of the plant be removed, not the entire conk. This ensures the continued growth of the fungus which protects the tree from damage and susceptibility to harmful infections.
Because chaga is a parasite of the birch tree, when the tree dies so does the fungi. This means that it must be harvested from living trees during the fall, when the trees have gathered water and nutrients for the winter. This is also when the nutritional value is the highest. Do not harvest when the sap starts running from the tree or in the summer months.