Saturday, September 28, 2013

Chaga and the Wild Harvesting Dilemma

There are many wild spaces where I love to walk and, when necessary, harvest herbs. Whenever I explore a new area or trail, I keep a record of what species grow there. For those herbs that I use in my practice, I will also estimate the approximate amount (in litres of tincture) that can be sustainably harvested from the area of any species that are growing in sufficient quantity. Since plant populations change, I update these records every time I visit an area. As someone who wild harvests almost all of the medicines that I use, this information is very important to me. I maintain a data base in which I keep track of it.

Every year I try to visit a few new areas. This is partly because I want to deepen my relationship with the region where I live and one of the ways I do that is to get to know its diversity of landscapes and ecosystems. However, in exploring new areas I am also keeping track of the medicines that grow there. I like to have as many locations as possible to harvest each of the medicines that I use so that I don't have to harvest them in any particular region more than once every few years. I am extremely anal about respecting the medicines and making sure that they are harvested in a sustainable manner. I have written about this in more detail in my post Wild Harvesting Herbs.

In my practice I use several medicinal fungi. One of the fungi that I harvest is clinker polypore (Inonotus obliquus), better known these days as chaga. The name chaga is an anglicized version of the Russian version of the name of the fungus in the language of the Komi people of central Russia. Since this fungus has been popularized as chaga, very few people know its English name.

Clinker polypore (Inonotus obliquus), better known as chaga.

Chaga is a fungus that grows primarily on birch trees (Betula spp.) in the region where I live. It has been used for various purposes by many traditional peoples throughout the temperate and subarctic regions of the northern hemisphere where it grows. Until the last decade or so, most people in our society had never heard of it. However, it has become popularized in recent years, which is not a good thing! This fungus grows very slowly and is difficult to cultivate. In addition, so far the medicinal properties of the cultivated fungus are significantly inferior to the wild harvested fungus. Another concern is that this is not your typical wood rotting fungus. Most of the conks or bracket fungi that grow on living and dead trees are actually the reproductive organs or fruiting bodies of organisms that grow as a network of filamentous mycelia beneath the bark or through the wood. When we harvest the fruiting body of a fungus, we are not harvesting the main part of the organism. However, chaga doesn't grow this way. The part that appears growing out of the side of birch trees is not the fruit. It is the actual fungus. Chaga rarely fruits and usually only after the tree dies. So, when we harvest chaga, we are harvesting the main body of the organism.

When walking through areas with a lot of birch trees, I used to see a fair amount of chaga. However, in the last couple of years what I am mostly seeing is a lot of trees from which the chaga has been removed and very little chaga itself. This is not simply a matter of a few people harvesting some for personal use. With the popularization of this fungus it seems that there are some people who think of it as a free resource that they can harvest at will in order to make some money. What I'm finding is that most of the people out there harvesting chaga are doing their best to gouge every last bit of it out of the tree. Remember, in this case they aren't just harvesting the fruit and leaving the organism intact. They are harvesting the whole fungus! In addition, they are doing a lot of damage to the trees that it grows on, leaving gaping wounds through which the trees can easily be affected by insects or disease.

When I harvest chaga, I only harvest it in areas where it is plentiful; I only harvest from a small percentage of the fungi growing in the area; and I only harvest part of any given conk and leave 50% or more of it intact. What I'm seeing out there is the result of people harvesting every fungus they can find and doing their best to completely extract it from the tree it is growing on. Needless to say, given that chaga rarely fruits and grows very slowly, this fungus is rapidly becoming scarce in the more accessible areas where it was once relatively common.

Chaga harvested correctly: not cutting too deep and leaving more than half of the fungus intact.

It is ironic that the demand for chaga is due to a growing interest in "natural healing". However, this is the antithesis of what natural healing is really about! Natural healing is about cultivating more balanced and harmonious relationships with ourselves and the world we live in. There is nothing balanced or harmonious about the consumerism driven and disrespectful way that chaga is being torn from the landscape. This is something that many people still don't get. Our lack of health in body, heart, mind and spirit is largely due to how we interact with the world. We live in a society that is way out of balance and as long as we continue to perpetuate the unsustainable paradigm that underlies the status quo we will never really be healthy!

One of the many fallacies of the current Western world view is that we are individuals. It's all about me! It's OK to rape the ecosystem to provide me with what I want. In truth, there are no individuals. Our life depends on the life of our Earth Mother and all of the beings that we share this life with. Everything we do affects everything else and will inevitably come back to bite us if it isn't done with respect and wisdom.

If we are trying to live "green" or "natural" we have a responsibility to investigate the reality behind the latest "green" or "natural" products. We can't necessarily trust the word of anyone who is trying to sell us something. That doesn't mean that they are always manipulative or deceptive - but they often are. Even people who mean well are less likely to dig too deeply into something if their livelihood depends on it. Inevitably, we need to do some research for ourselves. For example: electric cars aren't green or sustainable if they use electricity that is produced by coal plants; solar panels are not green or sustainable if it takes more energy to make them than they will produce in their lifetime, or manufacturing them requires the use of rare and/or toxic elements; shipping exotic "superfoods" half way around the world when there are foods of similar or better nutrient density growing in the area where we live is not green or sustainable - and who knows what environmental transgressions may have been committed where they were grown or harvested? Farming and harvesting practices are not something we can easily verify for plants that come from distant regions. Similarly, wild harvesting foods or medicines on a commercial scale is almost always unsustainable.

Getting back to chaga, the use of this fungus has been popularized in several books and articles, and by the people selling it. As a result, it has become one of the latest and most popular fad herbs. Proponents of its use are recommending it be consumed as a tea and that it be drunk liberally. Some people recommend drinking the tea several times per day for many months or even indefinitely. Looking at the bigger picture, there are several concerns with this scenario. Firstly, chaga is the strongest medicinal fungus that I have used. It is not appropriate for liberal use on an ongoing basis. Like all medicines, it needs to be used with respect. Secondly, using it as a tea requires that it be used in much larger quantities compared to using it as a tincture because the amount of herb required per unit dose is much larger for teas. With the amount of chaga that will keep someone in tea for a few weeks, I can make enough tincture to supply my entire herbal practice for several months! I realize that it was traditionally used as a tea, however, I have found the tincture to be as or more effective at least when prepared by the method that I use (for more information see my previous post Making Medicine, Part 3). Finally, because of the way it grows, chaga simply can not be sustainably harvested on any kind of scale. If we want to harvest a fungus on a very limited commercial scale, it should be one that is very common and produces abundant annual fruitings that can be harvested while leaving the fungus undisturbed. An example of a fungus that might possibly fit into this category is birch polypore (Piptoporus betulinus), which has some similar properties and constituents as chaga, although they do have there differences. However, even "limited" commercial harvesting is not really sustainable because who is going to control how many people are doing it and how much they are harvesting? We're not talking about a village healer harvesting it to supply the needs of a small village in a remote area. If there is a demand for it and money to be made, it won't be long before the amount being harvested reaches detrimental levels. Harvesting the fruiting body might not kill or harm the fungus, but it will reduce its rate of reproduction. In reality, the only fungi that should be sold commercially for medicines and especially for foods (since they are consumed in much larger quantities) are those that have been grown commercially - certified organic of course!

A fruiting of birch polypore (Piptoporus betulinus) growing out of a fallen paper birch (Betula papyrifera) log.

Saying that wild harvesting medicines is unsustainable might sound like a contradiction coming from an herbalist who uses almost exclusively wild harvested medicines! However, what I am saying is that there are very few herbs that can handle being wild harvested on a commercial scale. A few herbalists wild harvesting herbs for their healing practice and a few more herb enthusiasts harvesting some herbs for personal use is sustainable if they are harvesting the herbs in an ethical manner. In fact, these days most herbalists don't wild harvest very many or any of their medicines. There are many reasons for this. One of the main reasons is that it is extremely time consuming. At the most, if I harvest the medicines in a respectful way I can only harvest enough to make a sufficient amount of tincture to practice two full days per week (6-8 clients per day)! Personally, I only practice one day per week. The rest of the time I am teaching and doing other work. Even practicing one day per week a significant proportion of my time is devoted to wild harvesting from April to November. During the peak harvesting periods (May to July and November) it takes up the largest proportion of my time.

There are still a few herbs that I either can't harvest in sufficient quantities to meet the needs of my practice, or for which I haven't found a suitable substitute that grows in the region where I live. I need to purchase these herbs, fresh whenever possible, to make a few of the tinctures that I need. I always purchase these herbs certified organically grown. If I can't wild harvest an herb myself or get it from a certified organically grown source, I don't use it. I never purchase commercially wild harvested herbs.

That being said, due to the increasing popularity of herbs and herbalism coupled with our unsustainable population growth, there may come a time when it is no longer possible for me to continue wild harvesting the herbs that I use. The wild populations of herbs simply won't be able to handle it. At that point I will grow as many as I can and purchase the rest. But I'll still go out there and continue to deepen my relationship with the wild herbs and the lands where they live.

There is no doubt that there are a few wild herbs that can handle some level of commercial wild harvesting at this point. However, there aren't many and a lot of them are not well known or commonly used. The criteria that would need to be met for an herb to fall into this category are: it must be very plentiful and adaptable, more or less invasive by nature; it must prefer to live in the kinds of habitats that humans create when we change the landscape; it must be able to be harvested without negatively impacting the ecosystem where it lives. In North America, most of the herbs that fall into this category are Eurasian plants that have naturalized here, such as common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), burdock (Arctium spp.) and red clover (Trifolium pratense). In my region, the only native species that I would include are a few species of asters (Symphyotrichum spp.) and goldenrods (Solidago spp.). Obviously, it will be different in different regions. Another possibility is using the parts of some commercially harvested tree species that are discarded during the harvesting process, such as the leaves and young twigs of conifers like white pine (Pinus strobus).

Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) is one of the few native Ontario herbs
that could be wild harvested commercially to some degree.

One of the reasons that people like wild harvested herbs is because there is a belief that their medicinal properties are superior to those of cultivated herbs, even if they are organically cultivated. For the most part this is true, but it doesn't have to be! Wild harvested herbs have a lot more strength and vitality than cultivated herbs even though cultivated herbs may sometimes look better. This is partly because cultivated herbs are often grown in conditions (soil type, moisture, amount of direct sunlight, monoculture, etc.) that are not typical of their natural habitat. However, the main reason is because cultivated plants are pampered. We all need a certain amount of stress to maintain a decent level of health and vitality. Plants are no exception. Too much stress can weaken them, but so can too little stress. For instance, a certain amount of drought stress is good for most plants. How much depends on the species. Watering them every time the soil gets a bit dry usually isn't a good idea. However, letting them dry out completely isn't either. Also, every organism needs some competition. This can be accomplished by careful companion planting. It is also a good idea to allow some "weeds" to grow, as long as they aren't allowed to get the upper hand by crowding out the herbs we are growing, above the ground or below it. Most "weeds" are useful anyway, either as medicines or foods.

So that is my rant about chaga and the ethics of wild harvesting. Once more, for more information I recommend reading my earlier post Wild Harvesting Herbs. In the mean time, the chaga is rapidly disappearing from the more accessible areas of southern and central Ontario. Although chaga is a great medicine when used correctly and with respect, I strongly recommend considering other medicinal fungi that are available from organically grown sources such as lacquered polypore or reishi (Ganoderma lucidum), hen-of-the-woods or maitake (Grifola frondosa), or oyster mushroom (Pleurotus ostreatus).

You might also be interested in my follow-up post More On Chaga and the YouTube video Michael Vertolli On Chaga.


18 comments:

  1. Thank you Michael for sharing your wild harvesting practices. It is important to teach sustainable harvesting so that we are able to share with others this vital practice. "We live in a society that is way out of balance and as long as we continue to perpetuate the unsustainable paradigm that underlies the status quo we will never really be healthy!" You are so correct in our society is way out of balance. I hope that the selfish ego will turn around.

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  2. Fantastic integrity. A man that truly walks the talk. A man in true balance with Mother earth. Thank you Brother

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  3. Hi Michael,

    Thanks for you sharing. I have been especially concerned about our small and quickly shrinking population of Chaga here in the Southern Appalachian Mountains, where it is quite uncommon. I was wondering if/where you've been able to find any records of growth or re-growth rates of Chaga's sclerotium. (The sclerotium is the blackish brown part of the Chaga - the part that is harvested and used for medicine. I believe the mushroom does live on inside the dying tree, but may or may Not produce another sclerotium). I have been searching for far and wide for some sure sounding reports, but have not yet been able to find any definite sources. Thanks for caring and protecting. Please feel free to be in touch.
    ~ Luke Cannon
    learningdeer@gmail.com

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    1. Hi Luke,

      In my experience it depends on how aggressively the fungus is harvested. If too much is dug out of the tree it seems to die - at least there is no evidence of regrowth. If it is dug out fairly deep but not completely, it often seems to begin to regrow a little bit and then stop. In these circumstances it appears that the chaga isn't killed, but it is stressed beyond recovery. It grows for a bit and then it dies. When I harvest it, which is a lot less these days because I have significantly reduced my use of it, at the most I harvest about 50% of the sclerotium (usually more like 33%) and make sure I leave a similar amount of the outer brittle blackish surface. When harvested in this way I have found that it continues to grow at a normal rate, which is still very slow compared to other fungi.

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  4. There are competing ideas on the appropriate time to harvest Chaga. Some say when the sap is running others state that the Chaga is 80% water when the sap is running and should be harvested in the winter. Is there clinical evidence of the potency of Chaga in both scenarios?

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    1. Hi Paul,

      I am not aware of any studies that have compared the potency of chaga harvested at different times. I can only speak from my experience. I have found that it is best to harvest the fungus when it is actively metabolizing. That means any time when the temperature has been at least a few degrees above freezing 24 hours per day for 2-3 days in a row or more. Many fungi can be extremely moist, but this is not one of them. I have not noticed a significant increase in the water content when the sap is running. However, with fungi that do tend to be very moist, I simply increase the potency to compensate for the extra water and find that they work just as well. The way I practice that means making a 1:4 fresh tincture instead of the usual 1:5. It is also necessary to reduce the concentration of water in the menstruum a bit to compensate for the higher water content of the fungus.

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  5. Hi Michael,
    I find your article about chaga very informative and I like your approach to harvesting it in a responsible way.
    I got interested in chaga because I have cancer. I started to take it in the form of a tincture about a month ago. I realized however that I will not be able to keep going with taking it for to long because I have limited financial means and chaga preparations that are being sold on the internet are not very cheap. I decided to find some on my own but didn't have much luck so far...all birch trees that I checked out are very healthy and have no chaga...:-( Is there a chance that you can provide me with an advise where about in south east Ontario area it can be found? I live in GTA area. I promise I will harvest for my own use only and don't even contemplate to harvest it for a profit. If you can please contact me: rksuerte@hotmail.com I would appreciate.
    Regards,
    Robert

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    1. Hi Robert,
      Sorry to take this long to reply. I have been away teaching or wild harvesting for most of the summer and haven't had time to work on my blog. I can appreciate your challenge, but it would be irresponsible for me to provide information on where to find chaga given the fact that it is being over-harvested. Also, cancers are very serious conditions and difficult to treat. I do not recommend self-treatment. You should seriously consider working with an herbalist or other practitioner who has a lot of experience treating cancer. If this is absolutely not an option, my recommendation is to switch to birch polypore. It has similar anticancer properties. It will probably start fruiting in the next few weeks and is very common on both paper and yellow birch in southern Ontario. You can make a tincture or dry it and use it as a tea.

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  6. Great educational piece, I learned alot.

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  7. A rambling speech, but not without merit.

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  8. Thanks for the info! I was out yesterday pruning some Maple and Oak on my property to grow reishi mushrooms on and I found some chaga on a birch tree. I was looking for some advise on how not to kill the goose that laid the golden egg and it looks like I found it.

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  9. Hello Michael,

    Thanks so much for your expertise in the field and also educating people on mother earth respect .
    Only one quick question : once shaga is harvested from the tree, what is the drying process, how long is it good for after and what is the best way to preserve it...macon jar, brown bag, room temperature, fridge ?

    Merci !

    Jude from Bromont Quebec

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    1. The over-harvesting of chaga has continued at an increasing rate since I wrote this a few years ago. I no longer recommend it's use. I strongly recommend that you consider using other medicinal fungi as an alternative.

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  10. So glad I came across your page and this post. I was searching the web for information on sustainably harvesting Chaga after seeing an Instagram page from Black Magic Alchemy on their "rootbeer" product that is made with wild harvested Chaga in Canada and marketed as a healthy syrup to pour on ice cream and other non-healthful things. I tried asking the owner what his views are on the long-term sustainability of harvesting wild Chaga since it is blowing up on the healthy living scene (he markets his products in health/trendy shops and restaurants in S. California), but he either didn't see my question or chose to ignore it.

    It made me sad to see the way the Chaga is being exploited. Like you mentioned, that is far detached from what health is. Here in Hawaii, native Hawaiians and those who have learned to respect the land in the way of the Hawaiian culture will make an offering to the forest to ask permission to enter and to gather plant materials for eating or to make lei. They don't just go in and pick freely because they know that the forest is a part of them and it's health is their health.

    I was wondering if commercial harvesting of Chaga is regulated in Canada, as it seems people like Black Magic Alchemy are free to gather all they want for their product.

    Thanks again for this insightful post.

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    1. Unfortunately, there is no regulation in Canada. We know so little about fungi. There are lists of the status of various plants and animals. I doubt there is an equivalent for fungi. The various regulatory agencies don't even recognize this as a problem — if they are aware of it at all — as they are primarily concerned about logging and see chaga itself as a problem. The official position is that it attacks and accelerates the death of birch trees. In truth, we know almost nothing of it's role in the ecosystem. It is probably only "attacking" weaker trees and it does't grow mycelia deep into the tree. It is therefore unlikely that it is accelerating the death of the trees to any significant extent — certainly a lot less than many of the other fungi that live on birch trees.

      That being said, chaga is still quite plentiful in the north. It has only become rare in the southern part of it's range where, more recently, I have even heard that people are cutting down birch trees to get at chaga that is too high to reach (I haven't yet seen this myself). Further north in the northern coniferous and boreal forest in Canada and Eurasia it is still very common and that is where the major harvesting is now occurring, especially in Canada, Russia and China. Given the incredible growth in the chaga market, it is only a matter of time before it becomes depleted in the more remote regions as well — not to mention the other environmental consequences of lots of people up there harvesting it. These are very delicate ecosystems.

      I am aware that there are people trying to develop guidelines for sustainable harvesting of chaga. However, we really don't know enough about it to make those kinds of decisions. I also don't expect the large and growing market to show any restraint. How often to people and companies show restraint when there is lots of money to be made?

      My position on chaga and wild harvesting in general is still the same. It should not be done on a commercial scale. If a fungus can not be grown commercially, we shouldn't be harvesting and selling it on a large scale.

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  11. I have observed something that looks like chaga but is not on birch trees. This is in a very moist area on old, rotting trees in a northern forrest. Is there something that looks just like chaga? It is also on old birches in the area. Thanks for the article!

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    1. I can not say for sure. I have observed another fungus that looks like chaga growing on poplar trees. The literature also indicates that chaga can grow on other trees besides birch, however, I have only observed this once. There is a possibility that what you observed is chaga but you will need to do some research or ask someone who is knowledgeable about fungi to have a look at it to know for sure.

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