Chaga mushroom – Inonotus obliquus – the birch loving mushroom that does not look like one, is an ancient remedy that has been valued for its many health benefits for centuries. You will find it while walking through temperate forests looking for encrusted black formations on wounded or dying white birch trees. The sterile and cork like mycelium grows out of remaining tree cavities after storms and other impacts break branches, as if to cover the tree's wound and protect it from invading micro organism. A tree and its chaga companion can co-exist for many years and the mushroom can be harvested several times over the course of time.
Before harvesting anything, be it in the wild or in my garden, especially before I harvest any kind of medicinals, I approach the plant or tree with respect, a prayer of gratitude and a pinch of tobacco as an offering. If you like to read more about how harvesting can be a spiritual practice and deepen your relationship with the natural world, you can read my blog, Wild Crafting: A Plant Meditation.
Harvesting chaga without damaging the tree and thus allowing both tree and mushroom to continue to grow requires care and mindfulness and a couple of tools. A small hammer and a chisel can be used to harvest the woody mushroom in large chunks without cutting into the tree wound the chaga is keeping sealed. Please do not use a hatchet or ax and carelessly cut into the bark.
Back home, break and cut the chaga into smaller chunks. It is a very good idea to do that while the amber colored inside is still somewhat soft. After a couple of weeks it becomes hard like a rock and increasingly difficult to work with. Dry the small chunks in a dehydrator or simply spread them out on a paper towel for a couple of weeks and store in a sealed jar in a dark cool place. It will keep its medicinal properties for years.
The charred look of chaga mushroom reminds of a cancerous tumor, which mirrors its medicinal properties as a immune boosting remedy with strong anti-tumor activity. This phenomenon of a plant's similarity to the the organ or disease it will heal is an herbal perspective cultivated during the middle ages, called “The Doctrine of Signatures."
Most of the medical research on chaga has been done in Russia where the mushroom grows in abundance as it prefers cold climate forests. Chaga mushroom is an adaptogen. Adaptogenic plants and mushrooms help to bring the body back into balance and have beneficial effects on the nervous system, immune system, the GI tract, the cardiovascular system and the endocrine system. By supporting the body and mind in these ways, adaptogens help us to cope with stress, stay healthy during the cold and flu season, fight cancer, and lift us out of the dark depths of depression and adrenal burnout. They have immune-modulating properties that make them helpful in treating auto-immune diseases and have high levels of anti-oxidants that protect cells from damaging free radicals. Adaptogens gently tone and support the body systems over time and need to be taken for a minimum time of two months to develop the full effect of their healing powers. Enjoying a cup of delicious chaga tea daily during the fall and winter months ensures that your are receiving support when it is needed most.
Chaga mushroom tea has a pleasant and oh so slightly bitter taste with a hint of vanilla and reminds of a blend between strong black tea and coffee without the nervous jitter as it does not contain caffeine or any other stimulants. I enjoy it very much with almond or hazelnut milk and sweetened with a touch of maple syrup or honey.
It is an excellent alternative for people suffering from ulcers or adrenal fatigue who have to stop drinking coffee. Not only does the taste and color of chaga resemble coffee, it will also help to heal the underlying caffeine induced health problem.
I always have a pot of chaga on the back of my stove during the winter months. It is my daily warming power beverage on winter days when my energy is turned inward and I spend most of my time inside. Tasting chaga evokes in me the sweet memory of the lush forest in summer time and reminds me to feel gratitude for the woods surrounding us, now sleeping under a thick blanket of snow. The crushed chaga chunks can be boiled over and over again until the raven black color of the tea finally starts to fade. Then a fresh chaga batch can be brewed by adding a few new chunks the water. Chaga is sterile and anti-bacterial and I have never encountered chaga tea fermenting, even after sitting on the stove for many days.
Chaga Tea: To make a simple chaga tea take a handful of small chaga chunks and simmer them in about one quart of water with the lid closed for at least 10 minutes. If the color looks light like tea, simmer a little longer. Strain and enjoy with optional nut milk and/or maple syrup.
Chaga Chai: We have been making Raven Black Chaga Chai Tea at Raven Crest Farm this winter and it turned out to be everybody's favorite. Deliciously sweet, warming, and spicy. You can add other spices than the ones we are using, the sky is the limit. Be creative and make small batches until you find the spice mix you like most. You can also add medicinal herb roots to your blend to give it even more beneficial action, such as astragalus, burdock, or eleuthreo.
• 4 oz chaga chunks or powder
• 1 tsp maca powder
• 2 tsp cinnamon back chips
• 2 tsp dried orange peel
• 1 tsp dried rose hips
• 1 tsp cardamon pods
• 1 tsp cardamon seeds or powder
• 1 tbsp fresh ginger, thinly sliced
Blend all dry herbs together and store in an airtight jar. Boil 4 tablespoons of the chaga blend together with the fresh ginger in 1 quart of water until raven black. Strain and serve with almond milk and optional honey or maple syrup. Boil same blend at least 10 times.
You can buy all herbs online at Mountain Rose Herbs.
If you enjoy a little caffeine, try a dirty chaga chai by adding a shot of coffee to your cup of chaga.
Iced Chaga Chai
Same recipe as above, enjoy chilled and add some dairy free coconut ice cream. Yum!
Chocolate Chaga Chai Pudding: It is easy to incorporate chaga into other foods. You can make a chocolate chaga chia pudding by stirring chia seeds, almond milk, cocoa powder, raw cocoa nibs, and maple syrup into chaga tea and letting it sit for two hours. Top off with chopped almonds, coconut flakes and fresh blueberries. Yum.
You can also prepare your oatmeal with chaga tea rather than milk or water.
Chaga Kombucha: If you make kombucha and like to add flavor and carbonation, use sweetened chaga or chaga chai tea for the second fermentation. It's delicious.
If you don't entirely enjoy the taste of chaga beverages and foods and still want to benefit from its healing medicine, you can purchase a chaga tincture and take 50 drops three times daily.
Or even better, make a big batch of your own chaga double extraction. It's easy and you will have enough tincture for yourself and friends to share with. You can even use it in cocktails if that is calling you.
Chaga Double Extraction Recipe
Skin care companies are starting to value the medicinal properties of chaga in topical applications as well. Chaga makes a very nice exfoliant in soaps and skin scrubs and you can now also find chaga facial creams with anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial and anti-oxidant properties.
Get your chaga on! - and embrace this beautiful gift from the forest. It's good for you.