Chaga is rapidly growing in popularity around the world as a potent alternative health remedy. Harvested in remote regions of Alaska and Siberia, where it has been used as a folk remedy for generations, chaga is renowned for its ability to strengthen the immune system, combat cancer, improve digestive health, and more. While most people are aware that chaga comes from trees, some might be wondering about the relationship between trees and chaga and what becomes of trees when their chaga is removed.
Trees and chaga exist in a quasi-symbiotic relationship, and improper chaga removal can result in premature tree death. Responsible chaga harvesters know how to collect chaga without harming trees, protecting the environment from degradation and overharvesting. Read on to learn more about chaga and trees.
Chaga is a tree-growing fungus and is typically found on the sides of birch trees, though it can occasionally be found growing on other types of trees. It appears as a large, rocky mass jutting out from the side of a tree trunk; this mass is known as the sclerotium. Chaga is often confused with tree burls due to their similar appearance, but chaga are separate organisms, while tree burls are a part of the tree trunk itself and are usually the result of infections or other deformities the tree experiences while growing.
Chaga exists in a parasitic relationship with birch trees, harvesting nutrients and water from the trees in order to survive. This relationship gives chaga mushrooms the nutritional content that they are known for. Birch trees do not get anything from the chaga growing on them, but removing the chaga risks killing the tree because it leaves a large hole in the trunk that can easily become infected with various diseases. When a tree dies, any chaga growing on it will also slowly die due to a lack of nutrients to siphon.
Chaga can be identified by its tough, dark exterior, often forming a contrast between itself and the differently-colored bark of its host tree. Small chaga growths are often difficult to notice, but large ones can be easily identified. Due to the long lifespan of both chaga and birch trees, this is why chaga is traditionally harvested from old-growth forests. Chaga grown in a lab or on newly-planted trees lacks the nutritional content that makes it worth consuming the first place, and it takes many years for a chaga growth to reach its full potential.
Ethical chaga harvesters will be careful when picking chaga in order to avoid killing its host tree. As mentioned above, removing an entire chaga mushroom risks killing the tree through infections via the hole left behind. To mitigate this, harvesters will only cut a small portion of the chaga off, taking special care not to expose the hole in the tree trunk where the chaga grows. This not only ensures that the tree won’t be infected, it also allows the chaga to regrow, allowing harvesters to return to it year after year instead of having to travel further afield for unspoiled deposits.
In addition to this, ethical chaga harvesters have a policy of not touching chaga deposits that are too young. Chaga takes a long time to grow, and small chaga growths will eventually blossom into larger ones that can harvested sustainably and safely. As a general rule, if the chaga deposit is smaller than the width of one’s outstretched hand, it’s too small to safely harvest, as removing a chunk from it risks breaking the entire mushroom off the tree.
Finally, chaga should only be harvested in extremely cold climates during the winter. Warm weather damages chaga and prevents it from storing nutrients, making it unsuitable for human consumption. Even in frigid climates such as Alaska and Siberia, chaga cannot be harvested during warm months because the sap within the tree causes all the nutrients to be flushed out. Chaga must be picked during the winter, when trees stop running sap due to the cold.
Chaga’s relationship with its environment is a fascinating and complex one. These mushrooms are capable of growing on trees for many years, building up nutrients and subsisting in harmony with little if any effect on the trees themselves. It is this unique relationship that makes chaga worth consuming as a health supplement, allowing humans to take advantage of the nutritional stores that chaga gains from its host trees.
Sustainable chaga harvesting is focused on preserving the integrity of old-growth forests, allowing young chaga mushrooms to grow and only partially removing older ones, which maintains the stock of chaga in the area and prevents damage to trees. Even as the world’s appetite for chaga grows, it is clear that ethical harvesting practices will allow people around the world to continue enjoying chaga for many years to come.
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