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Chilling the Chaga Hype

Chaga fungus on birch. Photograph by Mary Thill

Paul Smith’s College, with its culinary and forestry programs, is the ad hoc center of Adirondack wild mushroom foraging. One of my environmental journalism students there last year specialized in chaga hunting, and a faculty member recently served chaga tea at a seminar. You can buy hunks of the fungus at the farmers’ market at the Paul Smith’s College VIC.

So last month, when I needed to find information about chaga mushrooms, I drove out to Paul Smiths. I met with Cheryl Joyce, who is a chemistry professor at the college. She too is a forager with an interest in medicinal herbs and mushrooms, but she has examined her avocation with the detachment of a scientist.

“I have a little bit of an agenda,” she said. “I’m concerned about chaga being overharvested. For some reason chaga is just a sexy mushroom and it’s gotten out there. I jumped on the bandwagon at first too. But the more I started reading and looking into the scientific literature, I thought, Wait a minute, I don’t understand why people are jumping on this bandwagon.”

Chaga is marketed as an immunity booster. It’s sold in capsule form, and people pulverize and shred it to make antioxidant tea. It’s a northern fungus, but it doesn’t look or feel like what we associate with mushrooms. The hard, cracked, black surface resembles charcoal. The growths bulge from cankers on the trunks of old birches. The reason they seem so unmushroomlike is that the part of chaga we most often see is the compacted mycelium, or root, of the fungus—not the fruiting body.

If you hack the mycelium out of the tree, you are likely to remove the entire fungus and remove chaga’s chance of reproducing, Joyce explained.

Chaga is hyped as everything from cancer treatment to anti-inflammatory. Anecdotes about healing properties are all over the Internet. Inonotus obliquus may indeed hold potential for treating many ailments, but the science is not established; nor are effects of overharvest on forest health.

Turkey tail fungus. Photograph by Joseph O’Brien, USDA Forest Service

Joyce is not against chaga harvesting; she just wants people to do it responsibly—and to be aware that there are alternatives. “We have other mushrooms that are not in danger of being overharvested that are more researched and have more healing components in them.

“We’ve got turkey tail,” she said. “The scientific name is Trametes versicolor. It has more medicinal properties and is by far more well-studied than chaga. And it’s lovely and mild—not strong tasting.” Joyce makes tea and tincture from the common leathery fungus.

Turkey tail fruits abundantly throughout the Adirondacks in autumn. You’ve probably seen the clusters of little striped fans fringing hardwood logs on the forest floor. Shades vary from brown, blue, gray, or green to orange. (Make sure to consult an expert or field guide to nail the I.D.—there are numerous inedible lookalikes.)

So if you’re interested in alternative medicine mushrooms, the best advice might be to seek the alternative to the alternative: wait till next fall and stock up on turkey tail.

Chaga is often described as a winter mushroom, but that’s not quite the case.

“No. It’s year-round. It’s called a winter mushroom because you can see it better in the winter. That’s the only reason,” Joyce told me. “It’s black. It’s on birch trees. It’s easy to see in the summer as well, but in the winter when there’s snow cover it really stands out.”

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