If you are familiar with medicinal mushrooms and/or alternative medicine in general, you might be aware of a mushroom known as chaga. Harvested from extremely cold climates and found on the sides of birch trees, chaga is undergoing a renaissance across the world, as people discover its anti-aging, anti-disease, and anti-cancer effects for themselves. But while chaga was only recently introduced to consumers in the West, Russians have been taking advantage of this magical little mushroom for generations.
Indeed, chaga is a significant part of Russian culture, used for everything as a cancer remedy to an anti-aging technique for women. It was through Russia that the wider world began to recognize the use and value of chaga. Read on to learn about how Russians use chaga and how you can harness the power of Russian medicine to improve your health.
Chaga in Russia
It is worth pointing out that Russia (and Alaska) are not the only places one can find chaga. The chaga mushroom grows natively across a wide swath of the northern hemisphere, as far south as Turkey and across large stretches of the continental U.S. and Canada. Because chaga naturally grows on birch trees, it can be found wherever birch trees are planted.
However, only residents of the northernmost parts of the world have been able to use chaga medicinally due to the fact that it requires extremely cold conditions in order to grow. Warmer climates destroy the nutritional value of chaga, making chaga grown anywhere south of Alaska or Siberia useless as a food. It is only when exposed to the frigid climate of Alaska or Russia that chaga is able to absorb and retain the nutrients that make it truly special.
The importance of chaga in Russian culture can be best seen in how the name of chaga itself is derived from the old Russian word for “mushroom, “чага.” This word itself was incorporated into Russian after Russian explorers and traders made contact with the Khanty, a tribe indigenous to the Ural Mountains, located in western Russia and commonly seen as the dividing line between Europe and Asia. The word “чага” was taken from the Komi-Permyak language, which is spoken in the Ural Mountains region to this day.
It was through contact with these peoples and expansion into Siberia that chaga wormed its way into the hearts of Russians everywhere. The Khanty people were among the first documented users of chaga, drinking chaga tea as a means to improve digestive health. The Khanty were also known to smoke chaga (which we do not recommend), as well as use it to create anti-inflammatory soap that soothed the skin.
Chaga gradually spread to other parts of what is now Russia, consumed by hunters and gatherers in order to boost their energy levels and allow them to work for longer periods. By the time the 12th century rolled around, chaga had become so widespread among Russians that it was regularly consumed by the nobility. Vladimir II Monamakh, Grand Prince of Kievan Rus’ (the state that preceded modern Russia), claimed that consuming chaga helped eliminate his lip cancer. Russian folk medicine books generally contained information on chaga and its medicinal properties.
After receding from public consciousness, interested in Chaga was revived in the Soviet Union in the 1950’s. The Soviets sought to better understand how chaga worked and conducted a number of trials to test its various properties, each confirming what millions of Russians over the years had already known. In 1955, chaga was recognized as an official medical treatment by the Russian Academy of Science.
However, it wasn’t until 1968 that Russia’s love of chaga became known to the wider world. That year, the English translation of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s novel Cancer Ward brought worldwide attention to the medical uses chaga. Based on Solzhenitsyn’s experiences in a Soviet cancer ward, the novel’s descriptions of how chaga was used as a cancer treatment piqued the interest of Western researchers, who began journeying to the Soviet Union to learn more.
Researchers discovered that many Russians and other Soviet citizens drank chaga as an alternative to coffee, the latter being more expensive. They also discovered that cancer rates among chaga drinkers was unusually low, low enough that many Soviet clinics had far fewer cancer patients than the norm. It was then that Western researchers began to realize the importance of chaga, and with usable chaga also found in Alaska, access to this wonder mushroom was open to all.
In contemporary Russia, chaga forms an integral part of the Russian diet. Not only is chaga tea regularly consumed by all strata of Russian society, Russian women often use chaga beauty products, such as chaga face masks and chaga creams. Chaga is believed by Russians to possess potent immune boosting and anti-aging powers, and because it is inexpensive due to large quantities of it growing across Siberia, it is a strong pillar of Russian culture.
While chaga may be relatively new to Americans, it has been ingrained in Russian cuisine and medicine for centuries. From its origins as a digestive remedy used by the Khanty and other Siberian tribes, chaga’s legend grew until it became the go-to remedy in Russia for everything from the common cold to cancer. If you are curious as to why Russians love this mushroom so much, pick up some chaga and see for yourself.