The Case of Chaga by Katie Huckabone, RH RMT
We’re doing things a little differently in this month’s blog. My friend Katie, a Registered Herbalist, is passionate about herbal medicine and the environment. When she came across advertisements for commercial companies selling chaga soap, she was inspired to write this article.
Traditional herbal medicine is about connecting plants with people and connecting people to nature. That is at the root of what herbalists do, whether through teaching, running a clinical practice, farming/gardening herbs or formulating products.
Medicine making is not about harvesting and taking all we can of what nature has to offer. The harvesting of plants and fungi for medicine is done with respect. Like our ancestors, we ask the plants’ permission to be harvested and to be used as medicine, and offer a gift of tobacco, sage or even a strand of hair in exchange.
The practice of harvesting is done in an environmentally sustainable way that takes into account the plant’s own survival and our ability to have access to the plant species for years to come. To wipe out every plant seen would be very short-sighted and could put the plant on the endangered or at-risk list.
As a general rule, we should only be harvesting one tenth of a plant species in a single area. If more plants are needed, go to a different area and take no more than 10% from there. When we’re done, the forest, field or area we’ve harvested from should appear as though nothing was ever touched.
Take the time to learn about the plants you intend to harvest, not just their medicinal or dietary benefits, but their lifespan and survival needs. Be sure you know how to ethically harvest beforehand.
I have been in situations when the herbs I required weren’t plentiful enough for me to harvest sustainably. A few years ago, I desperately wanted St. John’s Wort. While there were a few plants growing near my house, there weren’t many, so I didn’t harvest that year. The following year, a St. John’s Wort plant showed up in my front yard and there were many more plants growing near my house - enough to harvest a little bit from each plant that I could use for a small batch of infused oil. That is one example of building the right relationship with plants with respect for their survival.
Any plant that becomes trendy is susceptible to being overharvested for commercial purposes and becoming endangered. Goldenseal is just one example of at-risk species listed through the United Plant Savers’ website www.unitedplantsavers.org.
When botanical medicine is harvested on a large-scale as a commodity by large companies, sustainable and ethical harvesting practices come into question. The risk of overharvesting is that we lose the ability for future harvests and affect the species’ survival in the long run.
What is Chaga?
Chaga’s scientific name is Inonotus obliquus; it is also commonly called clinker polypore. The word chaga comes from the Russian word tschaga. In the last ten years, chaga has become very trendy and can be found in health food stores and cafes as powdered beverages - coffee substitutes and chocolate drinks.
Recently I saw a few companies online selling chaga soap bars. I had been aware of the coffee and chocolate chaga for a long time and remained skeptical of how large companies could possibly be ethically and sustainably harvesting chaga at such steady rates to keep their supply going.
I am not putting a single brush stroke over all chaga product producers and manufacturers - I know of many herbalists and small companies that use chaga sustainably and respectfully in relatively small quantities for purposes that actually merit its powerful use.
Chaga is such a rare and medicinally important species and the idea of it being used as soap and literally watching it go down the drain is really troubling to me. Chaga grows on living birch (white and yellow) trees in northern Europe, Asia, Canada and northeastern United States. It’s found on only one in 20,000 birch trees. While it can grow on two other species, it tends to grow on birch trees and is more medicinal on birch than other trees. It is a very slow growing fungus and even though it can be cultivated (with difficulty) it is medicinally more potent in the wild.
Chaga doesn’t grow like other fungi on trees, such as reishi (Ganoderma spp.), birch polypore (Fomitopsis betulina), or turkey tail (Trametes versicolor) which grow relatively quickly and abundantly. Chaga can take twenty years to mature. It is a parasite that, via its spores, infects the birch tree heartwood through wounds (causing the tree to eventually die from white heart rot in 10-80+ years). This fungus, unlike a typical mushroom, begins growing on the inside of the birch tree and eventually protrudes on the outside, appearing like a burnt black conk at maturity.
The fungus conk is a hard mycelial mass - not a fruiting body of a mushroom. When we see typical mushrooms growing on a tree, we are looking at the fruiting body (including its reproductive part known as spores) while the mycelium lives deeper within the tree and can recreate the fruiting body if it's harvested. Chaga is the mycelium mass without a fruiting body. Chaga’s fruiting body, its spores, is very rarely seen and occurs only once in its lifetime, after its host birch tree falls and dies and the chaga spores infect a new birch tree. It is the sterile black conk (more scientifically called the Sclerotium), which looks like burnt charcoal, that is harvested for medicine.
The inside of the conk is a rusty brown colour, which is the part usually dried and ground to a powder for ‘coffee’ and hot ‘chocolate’ drinks but the black sclerotium is medicinal too. It is actually the sclerotium that contains high amounts of betulin, a triterpene, and betulinic acid which is a triterpenoid (a derivative of a triterpene).
Both of these molecules are best extracted in alcohol or vinegar. Betulinic acid is antibacterial, antiviral, anti-inflammatory, anti-HIV, antimalarial and antioxidant. Betulin, what betulinic acid is derived from, has anti-tumor and anticancer properties. Chaga is not the only species that contains betulin and betulinic acid - they can be found in the outer bark of birch trees (Betula species), birch sap, birch polypore, alder bark, chicory seed, sage, heal-all, and rosemary.
Chaga must be collected from living trees. It is a parasite that infects host trees, so when the host tree falls and dies, so does the chaga growing on it, and as it dies, chaga becomes susceptible to mold, parasitic infection and toxins.
If a birch tree with chaga on it has fallen, it’s crucial to leave it alone because this is when the chaga has a window to release its spores into the air or via insects to infect new host birch trees. Chaga must be harvested in the fall once there are 20 straight nights of 5℃or lower and throughout the winter, until before sap starts running. This is when the birch tree has gone dormant and the chaga has highest nutrient and medicinal value.
When the sap starts running and through the summer months, there is too much water content in the chaga and the medicine potency is diluted. The tree is also more susceptible to injury at this time. To allow the chaga to continue growing (although very slowly) it is important to leave enough on the birch tree when harvesting. It is best to take no more than 30-50% of the chaga conk. Leave small chaga on trees and harvest from only those that are larger than a grapefruit. As with all herbal medicine harvesting practices, it is important to harvest from unpolluted areas, away from roadsides and from soil that wasn’t previously industrial or contaminated. With chaga, it is best to go as far into the forest as possible because there will be cleaner specimens in the interior.
Another point to consider is to not harvest from areas where someone has already harvested to avoid overharvesting. My herbal teacher, Michael Vertolli of the Living Earth School of Herbalism, has written amazing articles about chaga and is an excellent resource. He writes that due to the diminished availability of wild chaga he has reduced usage in his clinical practice, focusing on only a few conditions where chaga excels over all other herbs: conditions of the bone marrow and autoimmune conditions. Michael uses chaga in tincture form only at a maximum of 20% of a herbal formula.
Chaga is traditionally consumed as a general tonic tea but per dose a lot less chaga is required for a tincture than a tea. Using it as a tea requires that it be used in much larger quantities compared to using it as a tincture because the amount of herb required per unit dose is much larger for teas. The amount of chaga that will keep someone in tea for a few weeks, can make enough tincture to supply an entire herbal practice for several months!
Chaga and Cancer
When we learn about a herb or mushroom we can get stuck into thinking we should use “this herb for that condition”, using valerian for insomnia for example. In herbal medicine we look at the person as a whole and treat the entire being. We typically use herbs as part of a formula, not as a single herb, to address the complexity of the person and their condition/concerns.
With herbs that show anticancer or antitumor properties, it’s not enough to think about “this herb for cancer,” almost as a magical cure-all. Each cancer shows up differently in different people. Breast cancer will not behave the same way in everyone or even the same way twice in the same person. We must learn how the person’s particular cancer is behaving at the cellular level and try to block its behaviour and strengthen and heal the healthy cells.
So chaga is not The Cancer Mushroom. Chaga is only one of many species in our materia medica that can provide support for people living with cancer - either as treatment or taken alongside chemotherapy and radiation to help alleviate side effects and protect healthy cells. The University of Windsor started the Dandelion Root Project in 2009 with a focus on the effects of dandelion root decoctions on cancer cells. So far there has been promising in vivo evidence for effectiveness against human T cell leukemia, chronic myelomonocytic leukemia, pancreatic and colon cancers, with no toxicity to non-cancer cells.
The studies have also shown efficacy in animal models (mice) that have been transplanted with human colon cancer cells. The project is now in phase 1 of clinical trials for blood cancers that do not respond to drug treatment.
I believe chaga is an incredibly useful and powerful medicine but because of its rarity and inability to reproduce more than once in its lifetime, it should be harvested responsibly and used in tincture form ideally, only when needed. It should definitely not be sold as a soap!
Herbalists advocate against it being harvested commercially. We have so many other wonderful mushrooms and herbs that can bring us similar benefits and can be harvested more sustainably than chaga. Reishi, birch polypore, turkey tail and oyster mushrooms are a few examples.
For those looking for healthy coffee substitute drinks I have tried a few delicious alternatives. The first is called Bambu and is available in many health food stores and online. It contains rye, chicory, barley, malted barley, figs and acorns. The directions are the same as making instant coffee.
Take Charge Tea, an Ottawa area company, creates a fabulous tea blend called Roasted Chicory with Barley and Spice. Check out their website www.TakeChargeTea.com.
When purchasing chaga, ask how it is being harvested so you can make your own decision about supporting that business. If the company is so large they supply multiple stores and cafes with their product, make your own decision about whether you want to keep supporting them.
This is not an attack on companies trying to get medicine to people. This is about all of us making informed decisions about how our dollar and our actions impact sustainable access to medicine in the future.
A Final Word
To summarize, whether you are Registered Herbalist, or a foraging enthusiast, practice sustainable harvesting. When purchasing Chaga, or other botanicals, ask about the company’s harvesting practices. This is the only way we can ensure plants and fungi will be available to all in the future.
This article has been edited for our blog. For the full article and references, and to learn more about Katie, please visit https://www.katiehuckabone.com/news.
Thank you Katie for allowing us to share your view on this important subject!
As always, if you have any questions or input, please reach out!