Chaga Mushroom: Tinder Fungus and Pharmacy Growing on a Tree
by Todd Walker
On a warm July day in 1993, my interpreter and I took a stroll in a beautiful white birch forest outside our youth camp in Siberia. Papery tree trunks erupted from the landscape as far as the eye could see. I’d once drawn a forest scene like this in sixth grade but had never touched, smelled, and listened to such picturesque trees growing east of the Ural Mountains.
As we walked, Sergei stopped and pointed out a black mass growing on the side of a tree. Little did I know how important this crusty, charcoal looking fungus called Chaga (Inonotus obliquus) was to the people of Siberia. Twenty-plus years later, I’m just discovering why this wild mushroom is called a…
“Gift from God”
We humans have been using the wild plant world to heal and nourish since our beginnings. Oftentimes we walk past nature’s medicine cabinet unaware of its beneficial properties underfoot and overhead.
I’m always cautious about harvesting wild mushrooms. However, Chaga mushrooms look nothing like a typical story book mushroom with gills, domed cap, and a fairy sitting underneath. This multicellular fungi consists of spores and grows for twenty years on birch trees in northern latitudes. The blackish outside reminds me of charred wood. Beneath the blackish crust (called the sclerotium) is a rusty orange/brown interior resembling a wine cork but as hard as the wood on which it grows when dried.
Obviously, Chaga doesn’t grow here in our Georgia climate. This doesn’t mean we can’t tap into its benefits down south.
Chaga and Cancer
For those who have followed our journey on this blog, you may recall that in January of 2012, my wife, Dirt Road Girl, was diagnosed with stage-4 cancer. The chemo and radiation treatments almost killed her. The side effects of the aggressive drugs have wreaked havoc on her body.
Don’t get me wrong, we are so thankful we have the chance to spoil our three grandsons together! Her last scan (December 2015) showed no growth! But it’s all the side effects of her daily chemo pill that we hate. During our fight to beat this disease, we’ve sought alternative methods to restore her health. Our latest research points to the potential anti-cancer benefits of this wild mushroom.
Below are few of the things we’ve discovered about Chaga and cancer. This information is shared with you for educational purposes only. It is not meant to be medical advice. We are not medical professionals. Do your own due diligence and research. We’re just two individuals on a quest to live life and regain health.
Health and Healing Claims of Chaga
We’ve just begun using Chaga so our personal results are limited. My research of scientific studies and anecdotal evidence points us to the following health benefits…
- Natural energy booster and hunger suppressant
- Melanin found in the black crust (sclerotium) is high in antioxidants
- Anti-cancer due to phyto-sterols
- Aids in the side effects of chemo/radiation treatments without harming healthy cells
- Anti-parasitic (rid intestinal parasites)
- Antioxidant properties
- Topical treatment for skin conditions (psoriasis, eczema, dermatitis, etc.)
- Blood sugar regulator
- Liver protection and detox of the body
- Immune system enhancer and modulator (claims to help with auto-immune diseases such as lupus and psoriasis)
- Increased T-cell activity due to beta glucans present in the mushroom
Without getting too technical, antioxidant foods are measured in what the USDA calls Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity, or ORAC scale. The higher the ORAC score, the more antioxidants are present.
Then the SOD acronym pops up – Superoxide Dismutase. Our bodies produce this enzyme to counteract harmful oxidation in cells. Chaga extract is said to stimulate the production of SOD.
Studies show Chaga to be high in ORAC and SOD.
To get to the good stuff in Chaga, the most common method is hot water extraction. Advice on this process varies. Some avid tea drinkers advise to not heat Chaga above 125º F for fear of destroying its beneficial properties. Others boil the conks for several minutes or simply steep as one would any tea.
Joel Bragg, a Pathfinder buddy, sent me several pieces of Chaga in a trade. I simply boil a few until the water turns a dark color, usually about 5-10 minutes. Strain and drink. I use the same pieces over and over until the tea isn’t dark. Don’t discard used Chaga. Use the tincture recipe below to extract non-water soluble goodness. Once all the medicinal components have been extracted, Chaga can be burned like incense. I’ve not seen any studies of the usefulness of burning Chaga but it has a pleasant smell to me. It makes a great addition to your fire kit, as well.
I’ve also ground Chaga chunks into a fine powder with our VitaMix. It’s a dusty affair. Steep a spoon of powder in hot water and strain through a filter. DRG wants to try the crock pot method for larger batches of tea extract.
I enjoy my Chaga tea straight (no additives). I add coconut oil occasionally, not for flavor, but for the added health benefits. DRG flavors her tea with a few spices – cardamon, cinnamon, and/or ginger.
Hot water doesn’t extract all the good stuff, though. Other bioactive ingredients are non-water soluble and accessible through alcohol extraction. Add three table spoons of ground Chaga to one pint of vodka. After two weeks in a cool, dark place, filter the tincture and take 2-3 table spoons 3-6 times daily. This recipe and others can be found here.
A combination of both water and alcohol extraction can be used for full benefit.
Where to Buy/Find Chaga
As mentioned previously, I’ve collected a good supply from a few of my bushcraft buddies. Thanks guys! If you can’t harvest wild Chaga, ordering is an option. Not all Chaga is created equal. There’s cultivated versions, lab-grown, and wild Chaga. You want conks that naturally grow on birch trees.
If you live in an area like me, there are no Chaga mushrooms growing in my Georgia forests. I don’t always buy Chaga, but when I do, I buy from Dragon Fire Tinderbox…
I highly recommend this small, family owned and operated business. I know and trust Dragon Fire Tinderbox. My review of their tinder material is here. Daryl and Kristina also hand-harvest Chaga using ethical practices and respect for the wilderness.
Being relatively new to the medicinal benefits of Chaga fungus, Daryl has been very helpful in pointing me to research. He even has a Facebook group dedicated to the benefits of Chaga.
Chaga and Fire
Chaga’s ability to ignite from a relatively weak spark off flint and steel is how it earned the name True Tinder Fungus. I’ve experimented with other tinder fungi and have only achieved flint and steel ignition on Chaga. You must create surface area by scrapping or shaving the inner portion into a pile in order to catch the spark.
Before modern ignition sources like lighters and matches, a smoldering chunk of tinder fungus allowed one to carry fire over distance. Dried tinder fungi are great coal extenders and hearth boards when practicing primitive with your bow or hand drill.
Do your own research before taking natural supplements. I plan to keep everyone updated on our Chaga journey. If you’ve had experience with Chaga, good or bad, we’d love to hear from you.
Keep Doing the Stuff of Self-Reliance,
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