Names: Chaga, The Diamond of the Forest (Japan), Gift from God (Siberia), Clinker polypore, Birch canker polypore, King of Herbs (China), Mushroom of Immortality (Siberia), Cinder conk
Latin Name: Inonotus obliquus
Habitat: Grows primarily on Birch trees in forests of the North. Found commonly across Russia, Korea, Eastern and Northern Europe, Scandinavia, northern areas of the United States (Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin, Maine, etc), and across Canada. Chaga prefers places with cold winters, as this is the preferred natural habitat of Birch.
As chaga is a true parasite, a huge part of its medicine comes from the way that it concentrates and alchemizes the medicines of the Birch tree and it's bark, and in the unique ways it makes them especially bioavailable to us.
Parts Used + How to Harvest: Black charred-looking mass with a golden to rich brown interior. The part we harvest is a sclerotium which is a growth that results from the interaction between the fungus (Chaga) and the tree (Birch). This mass is not a sporocarp - ie. it is not the part of the Chaga that releases spores and reproduces. Most other medicinal, and culinary, mushrooms we harvest and consume are the fruiting bodies/sporocarps, but this is not the case with Chaga.
This is incredibly interesting to me, and I think is of great import when we're thinking about the "sustainability" of harvesting, using, and enjoying a wild food or medicine. There are many who denounce the use of Chaga because they claim that in harvesting we are removing Chaga's chance for producing spores and proliferating throughout the forest. This simply isn't true when we acknowledge the fact that the Chaga we use doesn't produce spores, it is "sterile", and will actually regrow multiple times (unless the Birch tree you're harvesting from is quite close to dying from this infestation). To read more, explore this article by Clay Bowers.
That being said, I do believe it is more important now than ever to be mindful about what, where, and from whom we purchase from. Buy from those who are knowledgeable, respectful, and truly love the forest. Avoid supporting massive companies who are more likely to prioritize the bottom line before ecological health and harmony.
Folklore: Chaga has been used in the folk medicines and Shamanic practices of Northern peoples for a very long time. It was revered in all cultures that had access to it, and memorialized with names like The King of All Mushrooms. The name Chaga is derived from "чага" ("Czaga") which is the archaic word for mushroom. Linguistically it stems from the Komi-Permyak which is the language group of the Siberian Khanty people who lived near the Ural Mountains. In Norway, it was called "cancer polypore," and a decoction of the mushroom was drank regularly as a tonic by people from many cultures throughout Northern and Eastern Europe. In East Asian healing traditions, Chaga was used to balance qi, strengthen the immune system, and promote longevity, vigor, and a youthful appearance.
Actions: Adaptogen, Antibacterial, Tonic, Alterative, Anti-tumor, Anti-inflammatory, Antioxidant, Immunomodulating, Antiviral, Digestive, Hepatoprotective.
Medicine Ways: Chaga has an affinity for the immune, gastrointestinal/digestive, integumentary (skin, hair, and nails), and endocrine systems of the body. I will break down the medicinal power and uses based on body system. As always, none of my writing is meant to diagnose or treat disease. Not all herbs are safe and appropriate for all people – please read up on any remedy you are considering taking, and consult a healthcare provider about your specific needs.
- Mind, Nerves, Emotions, Brain -
❊ Poor memory and attention span; facilitates concentration and cognitive abilities
❊ Supports healthy and balanced brain function
❊ Called the "protector of steady minds" in Estonian folklore
- Gastrointestinal/Digestive + Liver -
❊ Useful for all stomach complaints
I find Chaga a really soothing and restorative tonic for the stomach in particular where there is heat and inflammation.
❊ Dysbiosis, a depleted gut microbiome (from antibiotic use, food sensitivities, etc.), intestinal worms/parasites
❊ Gastritis; pain in the stomach; ulcers; H. pylori overgrowth; ulcerative colitis
❊ IBS/IBD; Crohn's disease
❊ Stomach cancer
❊ Protects and restores the liver; hepatoprotective
- Immune + Endocrine -
❊ Cancer, particularly of the stomach, liver, uterus, breasts, ovaries, and skin
❊ Useful adjunct therapy for those undergoing conventional cancer treatments like radiation or chemotherapy
❊ Allergies; psoriasis; tooth decay; degeneration of skin, hair, eyes, and nails
❊ Systemic candida overgrowth (combine with other medicinal mushrooms like Reishi, Turkey tail, etc.)
❊ Chronic hypo-immunity; slow healing of wounds; chronic viral/bacterial/fungal infections
❊ Supports adrenal health and balance of HPA axis; fatigue and exhaustion
- Cardiovascular + Musculoskeletal -
❊ Heart disease (ethnobotanical and folk usage)
❊ Arthritis and rheumatism, burned as moxibustion over inflamed and painful joints (ethnobotanical and folk usage)
❊ Improve endurance, exercise tolerance, and resiliency to cold
Contraindications: In the folk tradition, Chaga is used for serious illness but it is also treated much like a nutritive tonic, with people drinking the tea daily and with no strict dosage/toxicity levels. That being said there are a few times where it can be contraindicated. Some say those who are taking blood-thinning drugs to show caution with Chaga, as well as those with type 1 diabetes as it may lower blood sugar too much to be safe. It is also quite high in oxalates which can irritate the kidneys, so for those prone to kidney stones or with a history of kidney disease/disorders, it is an herb to probably avoid large doses of. Considered safe for use during pregnancy. Learn to enjoy and confidently use herbs safely during pregnancy and breastfeeding.
Read part 2 on Chaga here.
"Indian Herbology of North America," Alma Hutchens
"Mycomedicinals," Paul Stamets
"Herbal Therapeutics," David Winston