Chaga is a polypore fungus that grows mainly on birch trees in cold climates. It grows on living trees, but it is parasitic. This means that the fungal mycelium enters the stem of a mature tree through a crack or a wound in the bark and then starts to absorb and synthesise healthy compounds that we, humans, will consume. Let’s explore how to identify chaga.
Some say the relationship between tree and fungus is mutually beneficial or symbiotic because the fungus may be increasing the tree’s immunity and transferring healing elements. However eventually, the fungus sucks the life out of the tree, slowly killing it.
HOW TO IDENTIFY CHAGA ON THE SPOT?
To put it simply chaga is a black, deeply-cracked conk growing on birch. It has a burn-charcoal appearance from the first glance with a very warty texture on the outside, and an orange-brown interior. It can at times be brittle, with pieces of the mushroom easily falling off.
A fully grown specimen can reach up to 19” tall and wide, with an overhang of 10”. It’s quite large and noticeable protruding from the side of a birch tree. A mature chaga polypore can weigh up to 10 lbs.
Luckily there are no poisonous look-alikes to this fungus. So there’s no need to worry for your health if you can’t seem to make up your mind about the fungi from first inspection. Once you’ve cut into the mushroom, it’s easy to distinguish chaga by the golden brown or amber-colored woody material interior. There are other non-chaga cankers that grow on other species of tree, so do not tempt to harvest chaga from any species but birch trees.
THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND WHEN HARVESTING
When harvesting chaga, make sure not cut into the sapwood nor the heartwood of the tree. When it is harvested properly, you can harvest the same tree again in four years.
Do not harvest chaga from a dead tree. The mushroom will have no medicinal value, and the tea made from the mushroom will be bitter.