Friday, 6 November 2015

No rabbit holes, no snake oil, just garbling and getting to know the Chaga

I feel dirty.

I've just been reading the hype around Chaga (with side trips into pine pollen and deer antler velvet) by the likes of Daniel Vitalis and David (Avocado) Wolfe. I laffed until the tears streamed down my cheeks at some of it, but mostly I cringed.

Now if those two are gurus that you have some respect for, then you might want to click away and never come back to this humble wildcrafter's journal, for as far as I'm concerned they are nothing but pimps and snake oil salesmen. I'm not saying Chaga is snake oil, I'm saying they sell it like it is. Wait, actually, I am saying their versions of Chaga are snake oil, and very expensive snake oil at that. Start making claims about immortality and you are in the realm of snakes. Think I'm being harsh here? You should hear how I really feel.

I've also spent a fair amount of time looking at the scientific research on Chaga.

I'm not going to link you to either of the above. You, my readers, are smart enough to do your own google searches and this blog is not here to spoon feed you information that you can find on your own. I write this blog only to share my first hand experience, not give you third hand information.

Out there in the bush it was glaringly obvious to me that there is no responsible way to gather Chaga in quantity. This fungus, like all others, is an integral part of its eco-system. The jury is still out as to whether Chaga should be considered a parasite or a symbiont but to me that's a moot point. Fungi break down fallen trees, which in turn enriches the soil (to put it simply). Removing Chaga from a forest interrupts that part of the cycle. Removing a few from any given woodlot would do no more harm than cutting a few trees for firewood; the system can handle that. Anything more is asking for trouble. So no, I do not believe that commercial level "wildcrafting" is acceptable for such a slow-growing and necessary part of the forest any more than clear-cutting is environmentally sound. Charging premium prices for Chaga does nothing to replace what the forest has lost, it only enriches the sellers.

I think it behooves me to point out something I have yet to see mentioned about Chaga, which is that most of its properties are derived from the birch from whence it grows. It is, in a sense, concentrated birch. If you look into birch's medicinal properties, you may find it will provide what you need. Birch leaves, twigs, sap and even branches can be gathered without doing harm to the tree or to its eco-system. So why do the marketers not just go that route? Because Chaga has a mystique that poachers and gurus can exploit, that's why.

If the healing properties you're looking for are not contained in birch, do your research and find out what does provide them, preferably something that grows near you and is plentiful. Believe me, nature has sources of everything we might need spread out through the plant and fungal world. You will find what you need if you put some effort into it. If you look specifically for something you can gather yourself you can leave the gurus and poachers out of it.

That said, if you have access to Chaga in a way that is sustainable, i.e. you take only what you need and no more, then go for it. If you do, and you're looking for information on how to prepare it, you're in for more flim-flammery on the internet. Keep in mind that most of the sources you'll find want to convince you that their product is superior to anything you can make at home. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Preparing (garbling) Chaga is simple. I did it two ways; I prepared most of my Chaga for decoctions, and I made a tincture with the rest. I say it is simple, as in uncomplicated, but it is rather hard work, and it makes a mess.

Sorry, I didn't record the step by step. Sometimes I just need to get 'er done.

I think it's likely easiest to do as soon as you get your Chaga, right off the tree while it is still soft(ish). I used various methods and tools to cut it. The hatchet for the large chunks, and a screwdriver and hammer for smaller chunks. I used a very sturdy serrated knife (an old steak knife) and shaved it down, bit by bit, which gave me something resembling coffee grounds, took a long time and left me feeling like I'd pitched 9 innings. These grounds I put in a thin layer in pie plates and casserole dishes and left in a dry place for a couple of days. I stirred them often and they dried nicely; those will keep fine in ordinary jars.

As I did so, some of the chunks, roughly ice cube size, were mostly the hard outer shell and were tougher to grind down; I put those in a jar. When the jar was full I poured vodka over them and put on a lid. That's my tincture, easy peasy. I have seen some crazy methods involving heating the alcohol and other "don't try this at home" methods that made me gnash my teeth. Ignore them! Just do it this way, it's the standard tincture method. It should be ready about a month or so from the day it was made, but 2 weeks later the colour is already inky black, a very good sign.

Now we get to the "getting to know Chaga" part. I'm used to wild foods and medicines, so I used the "flood the system and see what happens" method of introduction. If you're not used to wild things, I don't recommend you follow suit. I've been drinking at least a pint a day of decoction**, and have nothing but positive results to report. Right away my sleep improved vastly, and it has continued to be excellent all the way through these last couple of weeks. After about a week, I had a day of headaches and feeling "wonky". It turned out to be a case of low blood sugar. One of the purported effects of Chaga is lower blood glucose levels and better insulin resistance. I do not have issues like that but I do tend to forget to eat. Chaga is a smart smack upside the head for me, I can no longer forget to eat or I'm in trouble. I count that as a positive.

Chaga is an adaptogen, which means it will probably bring sluggish systems up and running properly and bring haywire systems back under control. That is another reason most people do not need Chaga, per se; there are many, many excellent adaptogens out there, you'll find the one that suits you best if you try. This is why each person will have a different response to Chaga, because we are individuals, and why no one can tell you exactly what it will do for you.

Bottom line? I actually love this stuff, but I hate the hype around it. But then that's how I feel about plant medicine in general, Chaga just happens to be an extreme example of how terribly wrong it can all go in certain hands. It's not up to me to "clean up the streets" and go after the pimps, but I can point out, once in a while, where the shady neighbourhoods are for those of you just beginning to look into natural medicine.

** Decoction, a reminder: Any woody material, such as roots, barks and chunks of Chaga should be decocted. This means the material is broken down into small pieces, and placed in cold water to soak for a few minutes to a few hours. Then brought to a boil, turned down to a simmer and left to simmer for 1/2 to several hours, depending on how strong a brew is desired. Leftovers can be strained out and reused at least once more.


  1. Get a cheap-o hand-cranked meat grinder. Just break chunks small enough to fit in the neck and the grinder does the rest.

    Here's one from Amazon...$24.99.

    The old fashioned hand-cranked ones work better than electric or food grinder attachments because you need to go forward and backwards and be able to clear up jams quickly.

    But I used the old "hatchet, hammer, screwdriver, saw, dynamite and bulldozer" methods, too, at first.

    Lovely post, the forests smiled.

    1. Thanks for the tip. I see those at Value Village all the time, I'll pick one up. Ever try a cheese grater? I did. Let's just say I avoided blood shed, but just barely.

      Thanks for stopping by Tim, and for your help & advice.

  2. Hmm. I inherited a rather large No. 3 Universal food grinder from days of yore. While I'm not likely to see chaga in my new environs, that reminds me that there are other very nifty uses for it.

    1. You gotta love those old school tools. I hope to spend the winter mastering pasta making, I was gifted one of those rollers with all sorts of attachments an haven't had a chance to play with it yet.