Due to its co-dependent relationship with birch, Chaga mushroom grows in colder climates, where’s an abundance of birch trees. Therefore you can find and harvest Chaga in Siberia, Russia, Northern Asia, Canada, Northern United States (including Alaska), and Northern and Central Europe.
In order for the Chaga mushroom to support and heal your body, it needs to be harvested from a healthy forest, and a living birch tree, preferably around springtime.
How to find Chaga in the wild?
These mushrooms grow best on the outside of yellow and white birch trees. If you think that you’ve found Chaga on trees like oak, cherry, or poplar, you might be mistaking the fungus with a burl. Unfortunately, the Chaga’s that have been planted on other threes don’t seem to have the same health benefits as the ones growing on birch. Since a lot of the healthy compounds and nutrients it contains are produced from birch trees and their sap. Keep in mind that Chaga thrives in cold, damp conditions, and has a great tolerance for surviving hard winters.
Unlike many other fungi, Chaga starts growing from inside the tree, instead of developing on the surface of the tree. As the fungus matures, it protrudes from the tree.
It’s important you stay alert and extremely patient with lots of time for seeking, and exploring. Only one in 20,000 birch trees will be host to this polypore. Chaga generally only grows on older trees. So, older growth forests are the best place to look.
Most often, Chaga is found on Paper birch (Betula papyrifera), Yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis), and Heart-leaved paper birch (Betula cordifolia). It is not always easy to spot due to its camouflage black surface, which blends in with the black and white birch bark. Make sure to keep your eyes off the ground as the most common height range between which Chaga likes to plant itself is 2-10 meters.
Note that Chaga mushroom is a type of fungi that reproduces thanks to spores, therefore once you’ve found one, it’s most likely that there are more growing in the area. The spores are microscopic biological particles, that travel through the air and determine the next suitable birch bark cracks where a new life cycle for the fungus begins.
Birch Gnarl, Burls and Chaga
Birch gnarl and burl are tumors on birch trees that Chaga is often mistaken for. Though they don’t contain the same health properties, these tumor growths are popular amongst woodworkers for their beautiful texture.
Here are 3 ways to differentiate birch gnarl and burls from Chaga:
Difference #1: Exterior
It’s easiest to differentiate them by the exterior. Birch gnarl is quite smooth and has the same color as the tree. Burls are round to irregular bumps or bulges that develop on tree trunks, its unusual swirling grain pattern found in burls makes them prized by woodworkers. Chaga on the other hand will always have a dark black, burnt-looking exterior, and more likely an unusual shape.
Difference #2: Removal
Birch gnarl and burls are part of the three, meaning they’ll be very hard to remove. Whilst Chaga can be easily cut with a little ax or a knife.
Difference #3 Interior
If you’re still unsure, the final confirmation will be the inside. Unlike the tumors that have formed from wood, Chaga will have an unmistakable golden-orange color and a corky feel to it.
Best time to harvest Chaga
Whilst Chaga can be harvested all year round. Depending on where you live, try to wait until spring when the sap starts to run. Sap is the fluid found in Chaga, containing dissolved mineral salts and nutrients, that are absorbed by the mushroom.
There are advantages to harvesting Chaga in the winter, like better visibility and fewer bugs. But we have found that during minus degrees the fungus is often a little frozen, therefore harder to remove.
It’s also good to keep in mind that during the wet season, Chaga absorbs moisture, which means that the drying time will be much longer than usual and there’s a bigger likelihood for the fungus to get contaminated with mold.
The ultimate best time to harvest Chaga is in spring, you’ll get the advantage of smaller leaves, warmer weather yet fewer bugs. The Chaga will have absorbed fresh minerals and nutrients from the running sap, has had time to defrost, and dry from the sunshine.
Where to harvest Chaga?
Chaga is prone to absorbing different pollutants around it, which is why it’s important to avoid polluted areas like busy roadsides, forests close to factories, cities, and railroads. The deeper to the forest you go, the higher the quality of your mushroom, meaning the more health benefits you’ll gain.
Chaga will only stay alive and sterile whilst the host tree is living. Meaning that once the birch tree has died, the mushroom has died along with it and will only develop fruiting bodies to start another life cycle. That’s why trusting your supplier’s integrity to provide you with living, high-quality Chaga is very important.
During the growing seasons, you can tell from the leaves of the tree. However, if you’re finding it hard to distinguish a dead tree, look for the following signs:
- No winter buds or leaves
- Many mushrooms on the tree
- Big rotten branches, with a portion of them fallen off
- The tree is less hard (test it by touching and knocking on the wood)
How to harvest Chaga?
Here are tools you want to bring with you when going Chaga “hunting”. Keep in mind the average diameter of Chaga is 10 to 20 centimeters, depending on the maturity of the fungus.
- A basket, container or a bag
- Axe or an hatchet
- Sharp knife
Simply prepare your tools and once you’ve found your fungus, try to break off pieces of it by using either an ax, little saw, or a knife. Typically Chaga comes off quite easily. Once you’ve finished cutting it from the tree, make sure to gather everything that might have fallen to the ground and prepare the Chaga for drying by breaking it into smaller chunks on the spot.
In order for us to keep Chaga around, the fungus needs to be harvested sustainably as it can take up to 20 years for it to mature. Sustainable harvesting of Chaga means that 40-50% of the fungus will be left on the tree.
Unfortunately, profit-hungry companies are irresponsibly damaging the trees in the forest to harvest Chaga and selfishly taking the entire piece of Chaga they find, leaving the once thriving and beautiful birch tree to die. That’s why we encourage people to do their research on the companies they purchase from.
Once you’ve successfully gathered your Chaga, it’s important to prepare it properly to make the health benefits of the fungus bioavailable for your body.
To learn more, head over to our article “Can you brew tea with fresh Chaga?”.