Ch-ch-ch-chaga!! (And the 2 sides of Herbal Medicine)

There’s so much more I wanted to explore around the Chaga discussion stirred up most recently by Robert Rogers’ article for United Plant Savers than could possibly be included in a brief Facebook post (which several people shared-thanks for that!).

I was wondering, for instance, if anyone might peg me as being anti-Chaga. Or possibly anti-Chaga-user!

I’m not anti-Chaga, but I am pro-conservation. When you are working with plants for the benefit of people, the flip side of that is you also need to advocate for the plants. Robert’s article is titled “The 2 Sides of Chaga” & what I’m talking about here is the 2 sides of herbal medicine. You can’t have plant medicine to support the people if you don’t have plants (or fungi!).

There’s so many food/diet/exercise/health trends that come and go. We in the West seem to have a love affair with the new “best” thing. (Kale chips, quinoa salad, cacao anything, anyone?)

Yes, I know Chaga is tasty. Yes, I know it’s “supposed to be good for you”. Yes, I know David Avocado Wolf says so.

But a lot of things are “good for us”. A lot of mushrooms are “good for us”. What’s up with Chaga? (I suspect that if Chaga could bring people back from the dead but smelled and tasted like dog feces, we wouldn’t be having this conversation:)).

I also suspect that if most people had to harvest Chaga themselves-involving ladders, trees, axes/sharp tools, muscle strength, more sharp implements, and then had to cut this meteor-like rock hard mass into smaller, more user friendly pieces, using more muscle power (THEN process it to break down the cell wall &/or powder it so that it’s actually useful in the body) we also wouldn’t be having this conversation.

And if the price reflected that, as well as the potential scarcity that could be coming our way (like the price Goldenseal is at now-another plant that was over harvested after it became the darling of the health food industry) people might be more judicious with it’s use.

It looks so pretty & tidy here...but I promise it doesn't come that way!!
It looks so pretty & tidy here…but I promise it doesn’t come that way!!

Do you know how often I use Chaga with clients now or have used it in a protocol for clients while in 3 years of student clinic? Almost never. Maybe once. And even then I’m fairly certain the client chose to use it of their own volition.

Much of that was informed by a mentor who understood the limitations around growing and using chaga, and fiercely felt it should be protected & respected. But much of that is also that we have many other options. When working with plants & people, we do our best in our intakes & assessments to match the right plants with people, and Chaga isn’t for everyone.

You want something good for you? Why not greens? Dandelion leaves? A batch of those kale chips? 😉

You want to try a mushroom? Why not get a nice blend of all the amazing medicinal mushrooms we have available to us now for a wide variety of immune-enhancing benefits? Why not try Reishi? Reishi-the “Queen of the Mushrooms”-has been used for thousands of years, and used to be reserved for only the Royals as it was so highly regarded & revered. And rare!  And now thanks to cultivation, every one of us commoners can use it if they choose. Lucky us!

There’s something to be said for working with plants in your bio-region, and Chaga is of the North. But wild harvesting all the Chaga in the north can’t support the morning beverage habit of all of North America & beyond.

Do you know the magic “miracle” herb that we would give or use in a protocol almost more than any other? And I still do? Oats.

Yup, oats. Common Avena sativa in the form of oat straw in tea or a preparation of fresh milky oatseed. This is an amazingly nutritive plan high in minerals, nourishing to the nervous system, helping burned out, exhausted, anxious, frayed & frazzled people all across the land get back to their centre. Basically all of North America. Why aren’t we super-food-izing oats?  Not sexy enough? Oats can literally be easily & sustainably grown all across the continent (in our own backyards, even) used by the masses, and are good for…almost everybody.

I’m not suggesting that oats are interchangeable with Chaga-they have different properties & applications—but I have no issue with anyone trying oats or using them everyday because it’s supposed to be “good for you” because we can grow oats for miles (and yes, they are)!

Chaga grows in a specific bio-region & on a few types of trees—& most of the research done on Chaga involves the birch hosted type. It is slow, sloooow growing, taking years to develop. And the big take home point that Robert (who is a botanist & mushroom expert & has worked as an herbalist for over 40 years) is making is that Chaga is a conk that is sterile.

What this means:

When we normally harvest mushrooms, what we pick is the fruiting body. We could pick an entire patch of mushrooms, much in the same way that we could pick all the apples off an apple tree and not harm the tree, because the actual mycelium “or roots” of the mushroom (figuratively speaking) are under the ground and unseen to the naked eye from the surface.

If we pick all the mushrooms, the mycelium is still there & can fruit again & produce more mushrooms when the conditions are right. (Sometimes you can buy preparations made from the mycelium combined with the fruiting body-these can be cultivated also). The mushrooms ARE the apples so to speak.

(I’m sure there are botanists & mycologists all across the land that are rolling their eyes over my oversimplified analogy-yes I know fungi aren’t plants:)—but you get the idea. :))

But Chaga aren’t apples. They’re their own odd entity. Some people say, oh, it’s ok to harvest chaga as they only grow on dying trees anyway. Some people totally disagree with that. What I understand Robert is saying is: there is a short, short window when Chaga releases spores that would inoculate other trees with new Chaga—the window when this happens is very, very small, and when we take the entire conk we remove the possibility of “reproduction” from the equation–i.e–we shouldn’t be taking it all.

“This demand for chaga has led to a feverish state of over-harvesting that may prove to be the ruin of an important health product. What is generally not appreciated is that the sterile conk, or living organism, is only found on one in 20,000 birch trees. Some readers will immediately react in denial, but the reality is chaga where found in a birch stand will often inhabit several trees in only that specific area.

Other birch stands, infected with different medicinal mushrooms, such as tinder conk (Fomes fomentarius) and birch polypore (Polyporus betulinus), will not have populations of these valuable sterile conks.

Overharvesting chaga stands means that when the birch finally succumbs and falls down, the microscopic fertile fruiting bodies may not present themselves to release spores and infect another tree. This occurs during a short one- to two-day period of time and has rarely been witnessed. Without a source of the ability to reproduce, the chaga may quickly enter into a period of scarcity or extinction.” -Robert Rogers

Inonotus_obliquus (Chaga) Photo Credit By Tocekas, Wikipedia

Robert is not the only one sounding the alarm-many people such as herbalists Jim Mcdonald, Michael Vertolli & mushroom guru Paul Stamets & my own mentor Abrah Arneson have all been on that bandwagon for some time now. You can’t use it without understanding the limitations around it’s use.

I may not be a Chaga expert simply because I seldom use it-for myself or others. What I was taught about Chaga is that it isn’t to be sprinkled on everything like a condiment-it needs to be prepared in a certain way to be bio-available to the body (like most medicinal mushrooms). It’s a special medicine for the truly depleted, for certain types of cancer therapy & we should have it available for those that need it.

Part of a herbalist’s learning journey is to work with and use plants to understand their effects first hand in the body, and I will eventually use the 5 year old Chaga sitting in my cupboard so I feel I “know” it’s medicine better (luckily it’s rock hard nature means it doesn’t degrade like many other dried herbs). I may find I do want to match it with a client the odd  time. But really “odd” is the operative word here-rarely is more likely. I would consider other things first.

So I guess what I’m saying is, it’s good to understand the nature of the plant or fungi you are using, whether it’s easy to grow & cultivate or wildcraft (like, let’s all use dandelions all day long!! Roast those roots for your morning beverage!) or whether it’s not, and taking a step back to look at the bigger picture. Much in the same way many of us want to know if our food is organic or grown locally, or our coffee & chocolate are Fair Trade to see the effect of our choices on a bigger scale, I propose that we do this with the herbs & supplements we use also.

United Plant Savers is a great organization dedicated to education & protection of at-risk & sensitive plants—have a look if you’d like to learn more. On a local scale, we have a designated  United Plant Savers Botanical Sanctuary-the Senses of the Soul Farm & Sanctuary just outside of Cochrane, AB. Check the website for farm visit days.

Cheers everyone, thanks for reading, until next time, eat your dandelions & enjoy your oats (& try those powdered mushrooms)!

your YEG Community Herbalist

You can read Robert’s original article for United Plant Savers here:


UPDATE Mar 27/17:

Also, great article I found written by Michael Vertolli after I wrote this whole damn thing ;)–please note that he doesn’t use it or recommend it any longer due to the sustainability issue:

Paul Stamets article In Huffington Post regarding cultivation (it’s promising!):


Copyright © 2017 Dionne Jennings, YEG Herbalist

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