As I reminisce back to my childhood when I relished the opportunity to climb any tree, I ponder my options for how I will scale the old yellow birch standing in front of me. I could try to slink up the tree by bear-hugging the trunk and slowly inching up, or I could leverage my way up by wedging my body between the birch trunk and the dead tree growing parallel. The last option would be to reluctantly start the journey back to the car with hatchet over shoulder and an empty basket.
While the third option may be the safest and most logical, the prospect of chipping away at the massive growth of chaga sitting twenty feet above me is far too tempting. Chaga, or Inonotus obliquus, is a fungus known to commonly parasitize birch trees. The mycelium of the fungi form hard black growths on the trunk of birch trees that resemble large burnt tree worts. Appetizing, right?
Luckily, chaga isn't sought after for culinary purposes, but rather for the medicinal qualities of the fungus. Chaga is a nutrient powerhouse, as it is packed with antioxidants, vitamins B, D, and K, and minerals such as iron, copper, and zinc. For centuries, the fungus has been used as a folk medicine to battle auto-immune diseases, improve digestion, and relieve stress. Recently, research has been conducted that shows the betulinic acid found in chaga actively destroys cancerous cells in people. As a result, there is much more of a market for chaga products including supplements, teas, and tinctures than there has been in the past.
I place my basket at the foot of the tree and begin my ascent with hatchet in hand. I dig my knees into the punky wood of the dead tree and press my back against the hard trunk of the living birch. Slowly and surely I shimmy upwards. I finally reach the growth and start to chip away with my hatchet. Each swing reveals more of the marbled orange interior of the fungus. Small pieces fall into the basket below with a satisfying thud.
I make sure to leave a fair amount of chaga on the tree to give it the opportunity to grow back. Sustainably harvesting chaga is more important than ever before with the increase in demand. I arrive back on ground level in one piece and collect the chips of chaga that missed the target on the way down. Full basket in hand, I head home to process and dehydrate this ancient medicinal fungus for the market.