A fungus found detrimental to the health of trees, but oh so very beneficial for human consumption…
Can we all just take a moment to appreciate what an incredible month October is? Always starting slow, maybe a little too green, a little too warm for our expectations, then seemingly overnight, frost and foliage arrive to blanket the earth in a glittering chill. It’s the perfect month to get outside, with hiking paths highlighted by fallen leaves and cool air just begging to fill your lungs, but it’s also the time of year when immunity becomes top of mind. When we naturally begin to add nourishing roots and spicy seasonings to our routine, and when adaptogens play a key role in keeping our systems balanced, our hormones in check, and immunity high. If you’re not already familiar with adaptogens like cordyceps and reishi, autumn is the ideal time to learn about this incredible class of superfoods. Used traditionally in Ayurveda and Chinese medicine for centuries, the Western world is finally getting clued in on the power of adaptogens. Boasting the ability to work with the body to support nearly all systems, adaptogens help your body, well… adapt to everything from stress and environmental toxins, to immunity and mood.
Perhaps not surprisingly (when you consider they make up a huge portion of over the counter and prescription medication), many edible mushrooms and fungi are classified as adaptogens (like the two mentioned above). Including the subject of today’s article: Chaga. One of my favorite fungi (what, like you don’t have a favorite fungi?), you’ve probably seen chaga out in the wild without realizing it, usually found growing on birch trees, chaga is a destructive tree fungus that has been found to be extremely beneficial for human consumption.
What is chaga?
What I find so interesting about mushrooms and fungi is that, so often the most beneficial species to humans are completely destructive to their hosts. Cordyceps is an excellent example of this, as is chaga, which grows on – and ultimately kills – birch trees. Also known as clinker polypore, chaga appears as a dark brown to jet black conk (or mass) — the more mature and potent the chaga, the darker it will be thanks to high levels of melanin. The outside of the conk may feel rough, but the inside feels soft and slightly spongy when harvested. Traditionally grated into a tea or coffee substitute, chaga is now more widely available in the form of chaga coffees and adaptogenic dusts.
What are the benefits of chaga?
Chaga could support everything from immune function to stress relief thanks to the abundance of beta glucans, which are sugars found in the cell walls of the fungus. These beta glucans supports the immune system, boosting it when needed, or slowing it down if too much activity is taking place – this is the adaptogenic response. The polysaccharides present in chaga could provide energy, support healthy blood sugar, and keep the liver healthy. The melanin present in chaga is a potent antioxidant, assisting in scrubbing the body of free radicals and potentially supporting immune response.
How do you use chaga?
If you’re an experienced forager, you may already know how to harvest wild chaga. If not, and you’re interested in learning how, there are several books on the subject and there may even be a mycology or foraging group in your area you can join up with to learn the ropes (I don’t recommend just traipsing off into the forest, fungi identification is worth taking your time with). If foraging isn’t your thing, chaga coffee and adaptogenic dusts are a great way to begin incorporating it into your pre-existing routine without a lot of legwork, as it’s taking the place of something you might already be doing (like drinking coffee or making a smoothies). Chaga tea is also fairly easy to come by, and fresh chunks are also widely available – just be sure you know what you’re getting. Unfortunately in the world of mushrooms and adaptogens, many imposters exist, so it’s best to turn to a trusted source and read up on any websites you plan to order from.
What about you? Have you used chaga before? Please share your tips in the comments!
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