It was only a matter of time before I tried chaga. After all, my friends had offered it to me several times and raved about how good it is. It was a gentle, adult form of peer pressure where the primary benefit was not being cool or getting a thrill like it was during the teenage years; nowadays it’s about participating in the latest health trend, like chia seeds or Cross-fit. Among my friends, chaga is where kombucha was three years ago.
Chaga, if you haven’t been introduced to it yet, is a fungus (Inonotus obliquus) that parasitizes birch trees in northern forests. The fungus enters the tree stem through a would or old branch stuff and sends fungal threads into the tree in order to access the tree sap. Meanwhile, the fungus produces a crusty, browish-black growth (the chaga) on the outside of the tree stem. In forestry school, I first learned of this fungus as “bear shit on a birch tree” because of its ugly appearance.
But over the last few years, its been reintroduced to me as a dark, tea-like drink made from this funky mushroom. Chaga is a folk medicine used by native peoples across the northern hemisphere to treat a wide variety of ailments, including stomach disorders and cancer, although the scientific evidence is still incomplete due in part to a lack of animal and human studies. There’s a good amount of evidence that suggests it might be beneficial and nothing that says that it is harmful.
So, after years of offers, I recently tried it. At a friend’s house, a concoction of chaga and cinnamon was kept warm on the wood stove. The flavor was mild, similar to a black tea or a weak coffee, but with no bitterness. It was not bad, and seemed like something that would be good mixed with strong blend of chai spices.
We decided that it would be fun to do a little winter foraging and find some in the woods. We discussed three potential locations near our house, all northern hardwood forests with some yellow birch. I advocated for a place a few miles from our house, where the ground slopes down to a creek and ultimately the river a mile or so away. I haven’t spent much time in this area, so it was a good excuse to go there. I had a hunch that it might have more yellow birch than the other areas we were considering, and it turns out that I was right. There were tons of yellow birch trees in the snowy forest.
We went out on our cross country skis, although snowshoes probably would have been more efficient in the deep, powdery snow. The forest had a lot of yellow birch, as well as hemlock, but we didn’t see any chaga for a long time. We’d meander from birch tree to birch tree, occasionally using our ski poles to knock clumps of snow off the bole and see if anything was underneath. But nothing was underneath and the snow would just fall into our faces or down our collars.
Eventually, we found chaga on a few trees. We used a hatchet to remove it from the tree (which doesn’t hurt the fungus or the tree if done correctly) and put it in a backpack to bring home. Lately, we’ve been having chaga tea in the evenings. Hopefully the claims are true and there are health benefits, but it’s a nice little evening ritual regardless.