Chaga & Conservation

25 lb chaga

The second enormous chaga I stumbled across as I hiked home through the forest. My hatchet is about sixteen inches long, included for scale.

As people are thinking about spring, I am getting many requests about our upcoming foraging classes, and this year a lot of interest in chaga.

It is important to understand that chaga is a very slow-growing fungus. It can live up to twenty years on its host birch. It will eventually kill the tree it lives on. It will fruit several times during its life cycle, which means it will make several of the nodes that people like to harvest.

There is an odd myth that when you harvest chaga you have to leave 20% of the node so that it can reproduce. This is untrue. The nodes will not produce spores (these are like the seeds of fungi) til the tree dies. For conservation purposes, you might as well harvest the entire node and make use of it. This will not harm the chaga since all the node is a sterile fruiting body. The chaga itself is actually a bunch of fibers called mycelia that live within the birch tree.

It is important to avoid harming the birch when you harvest a chaga node. If the tree has chaga, that means it’s already weak. It is dying. Try to do as little harm to the tree as possible by using a knife to carve away the last of the chaga over the bare wood where the node emerges. That may help the tree to persevere for many more years, and it will allow the chaga to create more nodes.

If the tree has died, whether it is standing (a snag) or fallen (a log) and you see a chaga node, DO NOT HARVEST IT. This is the only time in chaga’s life cycle that it will produce spores (its seeds). If it cannot reproduce, eventually there will no more chaga.

A myth has evolved in the trendy world of health fads, which is often driven by the most irresponsible of pseudo-science, that the last node is the most potent. It may or may not have a little more polysaccharides or antimicrobials, but if you harvest it, that means that an organism which needs as much as 20 years to reproduce will never get to. Slow reproducing organisms are extremely vulnerable to over-harvesting, and right now chaga is the new ginseng–preyed up furiously and being rapidly wiped out of areas. You can harvest chaga without reducing the chaga population in your area by leaving the node on the dead tree.

40 pound chaga

One half of the forty pound chaga I found. Sadly, this monstrously large specimen broken in half when I knocked it off the tree. It was also partly molded within and could not be used. Still, it was impressively large and I’ve seen others growing in the forest, higher up where I couldn’t get to them, much larger.

As a side note, there are many other fungi with as much or more polysaccharides and antimicrobials, such as most of the shelf and bracket fungi, i.e., turkey tails, horse hooves, and bracket.

Chaga only grows on 1 in 10,000 birches. Like many fungi, it needs more than just a host tree, it requires very specific circumstances to succeed. It is very vulnerable to over use. I hope to see DNR soon regulate the harvesting of chaga.

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