Wellness trend creates new demand for chaga

The fungus grows on birch trees

MADISON, Wis. – A fungus found on birch trees in the Lake States is being sourced for a new wellness trend that has gained mainstream attention in the United States.

The use of chaga (Inonotus obliquus) has a history that goes back thousands of years. It can be traced back to early 16th century Russia as well as other Asian and Eastern European countries. When supplies ran short during World War II, soldiers in Finland used chaga as an alternative to coffee.

Kevin Olson, the owner of Northwoods Tea & Herb in Wisconsin, has been collecting and selling chaga for years. When he began to take his products to farmers markets about seven years ago, very few people recognized the fungus, but it’s a different story today.

According to Olson, chaga has had an “exponential growth in popularity.” Customers across the United States now seek out his products online or on the shelves of select health food stores, CO-OPs, and markets located in four different states. Northwoods Tea & Herb offers chaga as tea or extract, which are the most popular forms, but some breweries are even experimenting with chaga-infused beer.

Chaga nw
Chaga tea (Photo courtesy of Northwoods Tea & Herb)

In the field, chaga looks much less appetizing. The fungus grows as a black, charcoal-like mass found nearly exclusively on birch trees (Betulina spp.). Its interior is a mottled yellow to brown color.

Chaga is a slow-growing fungus and takes years to reach a harvestable size. The spores initially enter a wounded or weakened birch tree and begin to consume the heartwood. The fungus pushes outward and breaks through the bark to form the mass known as chaga. While chaga is often described as a medicinal mushroom, the piece that is harvested is not technically a mushroom, which is the term for the fruiting part of fungi. Instead, chaga is a dense mass of wood fiber and mycelium, or the vegetative part of fungi. The mushroom usually appears and releases spores after the host tree has died and the chaga no longer has a food source. Chaga should only be harvested from living trees.

Chaga is harvested by using a hatchet to cut pieces of the chaga off of the tree. As long as it is done correctly and only the chaga is cut, the harvesting does not cause damage to the tree. The chaga is parasitical and it may cause the host to eventually die, but many trees will live for decades even with the fungus.

Chaga tree
Chaga growing on a birch tree (Photo courtesy of Northwoods Tea & Herb)

Chaga can be harvested year-round but is often easiest to spot in the winter when the trees are bare. It thrives in cooler, northern climates where birch trees are found. Olson rarely finds it south of Wausau, where the Northwoods Tea & Herb facility is located. He purchases his chaga by the bucketful from loggers in northern Wisconsin for about $10-12 per pound.

Most of Olson’s customers are interested in chaga for health reasons – either to help with an ailment or just promote general wellness. While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does recognize chaga as a food, it has not evaluated it as a medicinal product. Even so, claims of its healing potential have spread, and many consider it to be a good source of antioxidants, a stimulator for the immune system, and more. Because it is also composed of wood fiber, some of its chemical components, such as betulin, are derived from the birch host itself.

The demand within the United States has grown enough to keep Northwoods Tea & Herb busy. Olson has seen his annual sales continue to rise, and they have nearly doubled in the past couple of years.

Even with growing popularity and demand, Olson is not concerned that chaga harvesting will become unsustainable. He currently purchases over a hundred pounds of chaga a month, but as long as a portion of the chaga is left on the tree, it will grow back and could even be harvested again from the same source. Chaga is reliant on a healthy birch tree population, so its abundance may be affected by over-harvesting trees.

Different states have different laws for foraging on public land, but currently there are not chaga-specific regulations. According to Olson, it comes down to individuals following good practices and treating chaga as more than just a financial gain.

“People just need to have some respect for what they are doing, whether they are on their own land or someone else’s. There’s nothing wrong with picking the chaga, but there should be respect for it...it’s not just money sitting on a tree.”

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