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As the word spreads about the medicinal benefits of the Chaga Mushroom, people are now looking to harvest this special mushroom for themselves.
Unfortunately, many people are struggling to find quality wild chaga and are not harvesting it in a sustainable way for future generations to enjoy.
This guide aims to tackle these problems by pointing beginners in the right direction and ultimately teaching them how to harvest chaga in a sustainable way.
Note: If you’d like to learn more about harvesting chaga after reading this post, please check out Chaga: King of the Medicinal Mushrooms by David Wolfe. In particular, the section starting on page 63 contains some great harvesting tips.
- North Atlantic Books
- Wolfe, David (Author)
- English (Publication Language)
- 224 Pages - 09/11/2012 (Publication Date) - North Atlantic Books (Publisher)
So, if you’re feeling ambitious and wish to harvest Chaga for yourself, read this guide before you set off on your first chaga foraging adventure!
How To Identify Chaga
Chaga is a medicinal fungus that grows on birches found in the Northern hemisphere. In general, Chaga is found in very cold habitats and grows predominantly on birches.
More specifically, Chaga grows wild in the birch forests of Russia, Korea, Eastern and Northern Europe, Northern areas of the United States and in Canada. When harvesting Chaga, only the sterile conk needs to be collected.
Remember that host trees are living beings and Chaga is a finite resource, therefore, it should be harvested in a careful, sustainable manner.
Chaga grows in all shapes & sizes on the outside of the birch trees it infects. However, you’ll typically see it in the form of a dome, cone, and horn with crusty ridges.
The outside part named the Sclerotium, is black, cracked and very hard. You’ll notice that it resembles burnt charcoal (Fig 1).
The softer inside part is softer and has a yellow/brown color (Fig 2).
Fig 1. Chaga Sclerotium sticking out from the main stem of a birch tree.
Fig 2. The interior has a rusty yellow-brown color
Where to Harvest Chaga
In North America, Chaga is almost exclusively found on birches in the northeast. In particular, it is most commonly found on paper and yellow birch trees.
Paper birch is a common forest tree with a white bark that exfoliates in broad, curling sheets (Fig 3). It’s found both at low and high elevations in the northeast of North America.
Yellow birch is another common forest tree and usually has a yellow bark that exfoliates as small, curling shreds (Fig 4).
Fig 3. white bark on paper birch which exfoliates as broad, curling paper-like sheets on mature trees
Fig 4. yellow bark on yellow birch, which exfoliates as small, tightly curling, strips on mature trees.
Chaga can also be found on Cherry birch and Heart-leaved paper birch.
Cherry birch is found more in the south and occurs at lower elevations. It has non-exfoliating bark that is dark and somewhat resembles certain cherries.
Heart-leaved paper birch is found in the north at high elevations. Its bark is similar to the paper birch but has patches of pink, salmon and orange bark.
When to Harvest Chaga
During fall, wait until there are 20 straight nights of 5°C or below. This is when the birch trees have gone dormant for winter and the Chaga is at its peak nutrient values.
Harvest through the fall and winter as long as possible until the sap starts running.
Do not harvest chaga when the sap starts running and/or the summer months, as at this time the chaga will have as much as 80% water content and will be flushed of all its nutrients until the next fall. When fall rolls around, the trees start gathering their water and nutrients for the coming winter.
Harvest From Living Trees Only
Chaga is a parasite of the birch tree, so when the tree dies, so does the chaga mushroom. This means that chaga must always be harvested from living trees.
So how do you determine if the tree is living or not?
During the growing season, the presence of leaves on at least some branches will tell you that the tree is living. However, during the winter months (when chaga is traditionally harvested), this is harder to determine.
Living trees produce winter buds (Fig 5), so finding living winter buds is evidence that the tree is still alive.
For yellow and cherry birches, living branches will give off a wintergreen odor when the bark is bruised. This scent is yet another way to determine if the host tree is living.
Fig 5. Winter buds
The chaga infection will ultimately kill the host tree, but the tree can survive for decades if not mistreated.
When collecting the chaga, leave some behind (about 15-20%) as this will help keep the chaga healthy and allow the sclerotia to regrow.
If the tree has multiple instances of sclerotia, leave at least one instance completely intact for the benefit of the chaga fungus as a whole.
Also, avoid harvesting the small specimens, and stick to pieces roughly larger than a grapefruit (7 lbs-10 lbs) in size.
Harvest Chaga From Areas Free of Pollution
Harvest chaga from trees that are found in forests far away from urban areas, sources of pollution and roads. This prevents Chaga accumulating environmental toxins that could be passed onto the end-user.
Generally speaking, the deeper into the forest you can harvest chaga, the better.
How to Safely Remove the Chaga from the Tree
Remember to harvest chaga with larger conks, leaving about 15-20% of the chaga intact to ensure that the life-cycle, of both the chaga mushroom and its host tree, continues undisturbed.
To help guide you, put your hand on the chaga, and if any part of your fingers touches the tree, it’s best to leave it to grow for a couple more years.
Use either a large sharp outdoor knife or axe to cut away the chaga from the tree carefully, making sure that you do not cut into the tree and that you always leave behind roughly 15-20% of the Chaga.
Prepare & Store Harvested Chaga Properly
Chaga will mold if not properly prepared (dried) and stored after its collection. To facilitate drying, larger chunks should be broken into smaller chunks.
These chunks can be placed on a pan, sheet, tarp or other surface and then placed near a mild heat source in a dry portion of the house, but do NOT place it in the oven.
Drying the chunks for a few days on a rack near a wood stove or in a sunny window both work well. A dehydrator set at 120F/50C or lower also works well.
How to Harvest Chaga: Summary
- The Chaga Mushroom grows almost exclusively on birch trees. Several external pieces of chaga can often be found on just one birch tree. When harvesting chaga, collect only the external pieces and never cut into the tree.
- Harvest through the fall and winter as long as possible until the sap starts running. Do not harvest Chaga through the summer months and/or when the sap starts running.
- Harvest chaga with larger conks, leaving about 15-20% of the chaga intact. Put your hand on the chaga, and if any part of your fingers touches the tree, it’s best to leave it to grow for a couple more years.
- Harvest Chaga from living trees only.
- The Chaga will eventually kill the tree, but a healthy tree that has only one infection will live for many more years with proper care. If the tree has multiple infections, then it will most likely die within four to five years.
- After you’ve harvested some Chaga, remember to check out our Chaga Preparation Guide.
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