If you are familiar with the world of alternative medicine, you might have heard of chaga. A mushroom that has had an integral role in Alaskan and Siberian culture for generations, chaga has been scientifically proven to fight disease, combat cancer, improve digestive health, and much more. Because of the growing worldwide popularity of chaga, it is possible to make a decent living collecting chaga and selling it to vendors, or just picking chaga for your personal use.
While there have been attempts to grow chaga in a laboratory setting, chaga must be harvested from the wild in order to be worth consuming. Additionally, there are a number of other factors involved with picking chaga, including sustainability, pollution, and the like. If you are interested in picking chaga for a living, this guide will show you how to do it.
What Does Chaga Look Like?
The most important thing when it comes to harvesting chaga is being able to identify it in the wild. Chaga natively grows on birch trees in the northern hemisphere; however, due to reasons we will discuss later, only chaga from extremely cold, northern climates such as Alaska and Russia should be harvested. This means that you can find chaga wherever birch trees grow in the wild.
Chaga appears as a hard, black, cracked growth on the sides of birch trees. This outside part is referred to as the sclerotium. Note that chaga appears superficially similar to tree burls, which are twisted trunk outgrowths that appear on some trees. The main difference is that while burls are part of the tree itself and are comprised of wood, chaga are entirely separate life forms. The interior of the chaga mushroom has a yellow-brown appearance and is spongy or cork-like to the touch; this appearance is why chaga is sometimes referred to as “black gold.”
Where to Find Chaga
The second-most important thing when it comes to picking chaga is where to find it. As mentioned above, chaga grows across a wide swath of the northern hemisphere, as far south as Turkey and the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States. However, only chaga that is found in cold, northerly locations can be harvested.
This is because chaga only reaches its full nutritional value when it grows in cold locations that have minimal heat year-round. Heat destroys chaga’s nutrient content, and the further south the chaga grows, the less nutrients it will contain. As such, only chaga that grows in Alaska, Siberia, or similar locales can be harvested for human consumption. While there’s nothing stopping you from harvesting chaga in more temperate climates, reputable chaga vendors will not purchase chaga that is taken from those regions.
Since chaga grows on birch trees, you need to go to an area where birch trees naturally grow. The two most common types of birches on which chaga can be found are paper birch and yellow birch trees. Paper birches have white bark that peels off in thin, curly sheets (hence the name), while yellow birches feature yellow bark that peels off in small shreds.
It is also possible to find chaga growing on cherry birch and heart-leaved paper birch trees. The former has dark, non-peeling bark that resembles cherries, while heart-leaved paper birches are similar in appearance to paper birches but feature patches of orange and pink bark.
When to Pick Chaga
As stated already, chaga must be harvested from cold climates during the winter. When tree sap starts running in the spring and summer months, any chaga attached to trees will be flushed of any nutrients it contains. As such, you must wait until the winter months to begin harvesting, as the birch trees will go dormant at this time.
A good way to know when chaga is ready for harvest is to look at the temperature. Wait until there are at least three straight weeks in which the temperature is 41 degrees Fahrenheit or less. This is a long-enough period that trees will stop running sap and preserve their existing resources to survive the cold months ahead.
Why You Should Only Harvest Chaga from Living Trees
Chaga exists in a symbiotic relationship with its host trees, taking resources from them to sustain itself. This means that if a birch tree dies, any chaga growing on it will also die since there are no more resources for it to consume. As such, you can only harvest chaga from trees that are alive.
Determining whether a tree is alive is relatively easy during the spring and summer, as living trees will have leaves. In the fall and winter, when trees shed their leaves, this process becomes more difficult. One foolproof method is to check trees for winter buds, which are proof of life. When it comes to yellow and cherry birches, you can also bruise the bark; if the tree begins emitting a wintergreen smell, the tree is alive.
Chaga is not strictly a finite resource; so long as there are birch trees, chaga can grow on them. However, chaga takes quite a long time to reach full maturity, meaning that if you carelessly strip every bit of chaga you see, you and other pickers in the area will be forced to travel further afield to find chaga. Additionally, removing the entirety of a chaga mushroom from a tree can kill it by allowing pathogens to enter the hole where the mushroom used to be.
For best practices, leave around 15 to 20 percent of a chaga growth behind instead of harvesting the whole thing. This will protect the tree from infection and allow the chaga to regrow. Additionally, avoid harvesting small chaga mushrooms; stick to large ones that are fully mature. Finally, if you come across trees that have multiple chaga instances, leave at least one mushroom fully intact. This will allow you to continue harvesting chaga in the same spot for years to come.
Pick Chaga Only from Pollution-Free Areas
Cars, houses, and other manmade constructions give off pollutants in the air that are absorbed by trees and the chaga that grows on them. These pollutants can have adverse effects on anyone who consumes chaga that contains them. Because of this, you should only harvest chaga from rural areas that lack human development and are thus free of pollutants. The further an area is from civilization, the cleaner and purer the chaga you harvest there will be.
How to Safely Pick Chaga
As mentioned above, you should only harvest chaga that is large and mature, and you should take care to leave a portion of chaga attached to the tree to allow it to regrow. A good rule of thumb is to place your outstretched palm on a chaga mushroom to determine its size. If any of your fingers touch the tree, even slightly, you should find another mushroom to harvest.
To remove chaga from a tree, use either a sharp, high-quality knife or axe. Carefully maneuver the knife or axe so that you do not cut into the tree bark. Do not hack the entirety of the mushroom off of the tree, because this will leave behind a hole that pathogens can use to infect the tree. Instead, use your blade gingerly to ensure that a piece of the chaga is left attached to the tree.
How to Prepare and Store Chaga
Left untreated, chaga will develop mold after being harvested, making it unsuitable for consumption. To prevent this, you will want to dry chaga as soon as you collect it. You can do this by breaking larger chaga pieces into smaller chunks, then placing the chunks on a baking pan or other flat surface in a warm, dry part of your house.
Alternately, you can dry your chaga chunks in a sunny window or near a wood stove, but take care not to place them in an oven or similar device. You can also use a dehydrator set to 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Chaga chunks require several days to fully dry, at which point they should be stored in airtight containers to protect them from the elements.
Chaga will only continue to grow in popularity as consumers around the world become aware of its numerous benefits. Few if any foods can match chaga—let alone beat it—when it comes to sheer nutritional value. While most chaga consumers purchase their chaga from third-party vendors, if you have the time, patience, and skill, why not pick chaga for yourself? You can sell it to chaga retailers or merely keep it for your personal use.
Picking chaga is a very involved process, requiring travel, the use of sharp instruments, observational skills, and a respect for the environment. If you learn how to identify chaga, when and where to harvest it, and how to pick it sustainably, you can make a good living as well as give yourself direct access to one of the best superfoods on Earth. Chaga harvesting is a tough but rewarding practice that yields innumerable benefits.