Updated: Oct 14
For me, the start of December on PEI means it’s time to collect Chaga (Inonotus obliquus). Despite some popular myths, there’s no biological reason for this, just two very practical ones: my fall foraging for other species is over, and Chaga is much easier to find once the leaves are gone and there’s a bit of snow around.
Chaga is a fungus, but what you see is a sterile mass called a sclerotium. Unlike a mushroom – the reproductive fruiting body of a fungus – a sclerotium is a sterile part of the fungus that stores food and helps protect it from extreme conditions. All mushrooms are fungi, but not all fungi are mushrooms!
Chaga is parasitic on Birch trees (Betula spp.) and common across the Island. On the outside, it looks like a piece of burned wood or charcoal attached to the tree (Photo 1).
On the inside, it’s a beautiful golden colour with a corky texture (Photo 2).
This fungus invades the tree through a wound or crack in the bark. Within a year or two, the sclerotium appears and it’s usually large enough to harvest within about five years. Chaga is fatal to its host tree, but will take a decade or two to kill it. In the meantime, you can repeatedly harvest Chaga from the same tree every few years.
Once harvested, Chaga can be broken into chunks and either air- or oven-dried on the lowest setting for at least 12 hours (Photo 3). Properly dried Chaga is rock-hard and can be stored for years.
You can then grind it, or just simmer the chunks to make tea (Photos 4 and 5). Each chunk can be re-used several times, but you’ll need to simmer it longer with each successive use. Hot Chaga tea with a bit of maple syrup and a drop of vanilla is my absolute favourite wintertime drink! That said, it’s important to know that Chaga is high in oxalates and so shouldn’t be consumed by anyone with a history of kidney stones.
In addition to being enjoyed for its pleasant earthy flavour, Chaga has been used medicinally for thousands of years. Modern research is beginning to support its traditional benefits, including boosting the immune system, lowering blood sugar, and lowering cholesterol. Chaga is also being researched for anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant and potential anti-cancer properties.
On your next walk in the woods, keep your eye out for Chaga. Another cool PEI fungus .