As Chaga (Inonotus obliquus) becomes more mainstream, we are left with an obvious question: Is Chaga harvesting sustainable? Some are concerned that wild Chaga will be depleted at some point in the future due to commercial harvesting activities. This is an understandable concern, especially given that Chaga is not a mushroom.
Mushrooms are the reproductive (spore-bearing) fruits of fungi. Mushroom harvesting is synonymous with spore-spreading, thus, mushroom harvesting is generally effortlessly symbiotic. Chaga on the other hand is more tricky, and must be picked apart to fully understand.
The piece of Inonotus obliquus called “Chaga” is a fungal organ known as a sclerotia. Sclerotium acts as a concentrated source of nutrient & defense mechanizing compounds for the fungus (fungal organism) living within. Inonotus obliquus can take up to 8 years or more to produce its spore-bearing poroidal surface under the bark of its host birch tree.
It should be noted before we discuss our Chaga harvesting protocol that Chaga forms parasitic relationships with various trees. Which trees? Chaga grows primarily on trees within the birch family (Betulaceae) including genera Betula and Ostrya. Yet Chaga also finds hosts within the family Salicaceae > genus Populus as well as family Sapindaceae > genus Acer.
To put this into common terms, Chaga typically grows on White Birch and Golden Birch trees but may be found on most if not all Birch tree species, and in order of decreasing likelihood, it can also be found on Hop-hornbeam trees, Maple trees, Poplar trees, Alder trees, and Elm trees.
This broad spread of documented host trees should remind us that evolution is ongoing. Chaga is not a static organism. In fact, Chaga hybridizes with fungi from the genus Phellinus. Hybridization of wild fungi is a topic worth covering in the future, but for now, understand when it comes to wild fungi, everything is moving and changing. It is reasonable to expect that Chaga could evolve to be found on any type of tree (albeit with extreme rarity) in the future.
It is worth saying twice that Chaga forms a parasitic relationship with each of its tree hosts, 100% of the time. Only some tree species are capable of surviving infection by Chaga, and only in rare instances. In these cases Chaga is able to produce a poroid off of a single tree limb rather than its entire trunk. Generally only the most powerful older growth trees such as Betula alleghaniensis (golden birch) are able to survive indefinitely for years after Chaga sporulates.
There exists a lot of misinformation online that frequently characterizes Chaga’s relationship with trees as symbiotic. While this is totally inaccurate, it would also be missing the point to proclaim that Chaga harvesters are saving trees in a noble sort of way.
The bigger picture is that there is a remarkable triangle of interdependence between us wildcrafters, chaga, and trees. If Chaga were left unchecked, it could actually wipe out the birch populations in certain regions such that it would deplete itself. This occurs in some white birch forests. Thinking long-term about Chaga sustainability would include thinking long-term about birch tree sustainability, which introduces an important discussion to be had about the larger threats that Chaga faces in logging & deforestation. This is a topic I’m steadily learning more about, but for now I’ll focus on the Chaga sustainability factors within our control here at Birch Boys.
After 7 years of Chaga harvesting & building this company, I began to feel that I understood wild Chaga better than anyone. Naturally, I have begun collecting data, GPS tagging each Chaga I come across, and determining the factors that are conducive to true Chaga abundance. Now one year into this research, I have developed some hypotheses and opinions that have shaped our harvesting protocol.
By 2023, I intend to publish this research in a more formal way through an established scientific journal. Any resources that may be helpful in accomplishing that are welcomed, and if you reach out to us we can share the details more intimately. In the meantime, I’d love to share the features of our business model that demonstrate this learning. These are the 9 principles / characteristics / features that I’ve used to build a functionally sustainable model for wild-harvesting Inonotus obliquus:
Our harvesting land in the Adirondack Mountains is more Chaga-potent than anywhere in the world due to a geographically isolated population of the superior Golden Birch tree (Betula alleghaniensis).
If you struggle to find Chaga, or if you have never seen a BIG piece of Chaga, you either haven’t looked very hard or there is no Betula alleghaniensis in your neck of the woods. The Golden Birch tree (sometimes also called the Yellow Birch or Swamp Birch) is Chaga’s greatest ecological asset. This is Chaga’s favorite host tree, and it only exists in the northeastern Appalachian Mountains of the United States & Canada.
Golden birch trees are not present in Alaska, Siberia, or any of the other mainstream Chaga hot spots besides Maine. Whatever you may have heard about where the ”best” Chaga comes from should be ignored. Honestly, Chaga is great everywhere it grows, and any claim to regional Chaga superiority is marketing mumbo jumbo. That said, it is at least true that Adirondack Chaga is larger and much more abundant than Chaga from Alaska or Siberia, all thanks to the Golden Birch.
On average, Chaga from Betula alleghaniensis is at least twice the size and weight of Chaga from other tree species. As mentioned, golden birch trees can survive Chaga infection, which means the vitality of these trees & their ability to produce offspring is consistent. Golden Birch trees lurk at all elevations across every mountain here in the Northeast. Some of them are hundreds of years old.
An interesting tidbit about the Golden Birch tree’s prominence in this region is that historically its bark was used as siding, roofing, and a primary construction material for the homes of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Six Nations) or People of the Longhouse. In addition to building longhouses, the bark of the Golden Birch tree was used to make canoes, insect repellant tars & oils, fire starting material, herbal medicine and of course, Chaga. The significance of this tree in all aspects of Haudenosaunee life is a testament of its sheer prominence & unique value in the Adirondacks & surrounding regions. At least 75% of all Birch Boys Chaga comes from Betula alleghaniensis.
The other component of the Adirondacks that gives Chaga’s abundance an edge is our incredible freshwater. Chaga, like all fungi, LOVES water. With over 3,000 freshwater lakes, rivers, streams, and ponds, the Adirondack regions are teeming with moisture. On warm days with cold nights, fog consistently ascends upward, keeping the humidity near rain-forest conditions in certain pockets of land throughout much of the year.
It is common for Chaga to grow far more densely along riverbanks or around natural springs for this reason. Massive amounts of snow fall accumulates here & melts, which assists in Chaga’s growth. There is simply no better habitat for Chaga than the Adirondack region, and it should rightfully be treated very differently than a discussion about the state of Chaga’s ecological vitality elsewhere.
More Chaga poroids in a given area means that more Chaga will be likely to grow there in the near future. By focusing on identifying the number of Chaga poroids relative to the number of birch trees on a potential harvesting site BEFORE harvesting Chaga, we are able to make an initial determination as to how sensitive future Chaga growth will be to our harvesting activities.
If we cannot find any Chaga poroids, that means that the Chaga growing in that region has a critical function to perform - to produce offspring. We leave these areas untouched because harvesting activities would be extremely limiting for Chaga’s ability to become abundant. On the other hand, in some regions, over 20% of all birch trees present have already been killed by Chaga and show signs of an active or recently active poroid. This would be a positive indicator that Chaga is already forming on trees that do not yet show signs of Chaga.
By thoroughly scouting each piece of land, we project the ratio of chaga-killed birch trees (poroids) to eligible living birch trees. This ratio varies widely from one square mile to the next, and it is the most important first step in a sustainable Chaga wildcrafter’s actions.
This is significant for two reasons. The first of which is that Birch Boys uses wildcrafting practices that are legal (Birch Boys does not harvest Chaga on any state owned, public lands). Commercial harvesting is illegal on public land, but this does not stop certain wild Chaga providers from doing it.
The other reason our land leases are so important is because it allows us to plan our harvests over the long-term. We are able to scout the land, assess the poroid to Birch tree ratio, and GPS-tag the active Chaga. We only take what we need, we’re aware of what is there, and we monitor its growth.
While we encourage any newbies harvesting Chaga for their own personal use to leave a portion of Chaga behind on the tree to regrow, we take advantage of a different approach; one that is uniquely available to us based on two factors; Our exclusive harvesting rights on private forestland and our extensive knowledge of Chaga's reproductive cycle.
The problem with harvesting some Chaga and leaving 15%, 25%, or 50% behind is that the extent to which an individual piece of Chaga will regrow is highly variable. It may regrow to full size in two years, or it may not regrow at all. The bottom line is that harvesting any Chaga could potentially interfere with its ability to produce spores. There is no easy formula for Chaga’s regrowth rate once a chunk of it is taken.
Thus, we carefully time our harvests of full sized pieces of Chaga at the end of their life by predicting when they will sporulate and arriving immediately after it produces its spore-bearing poroid. In these situations, we are able to harvest 100% of the Chaga, because it has already served its reproductive purpose. While doing so, it is easy to also collect & spread Chaga spores.
We don’t advise this approach for everyone, because it is not always easy to assess and properly time this phenomenon. By the time Chaga rips open the bark of the tree to reveal its poroid & sporulate, it is often so large (15-50+ pounds) that it is ready to fall down from its own mass & gravity. If you are too late you will find a rotten piece of Chaga on the ground. If you jump the gun, you ruin the Chaga’s years of progress. It requires an intimate relationship with the surrounding forest & an ability to make routine check-ins in order to consistently harvest in this way. It also requires assurance that there are no other harvesters who may take the Chaga while you are refraining from harvesting.
Unlike other wild-craft commodities such as Ginseng, a single harvest of Chaga in this way yields uniquely large masses which can be used to make hundreds of Birch Boys products.
We do not purchase Chaga from strangers. The outdoorsmen and women we contract with for harvesting are highly trained & specialized individuals. Our Chaga comes from a total of under 10 individuals whose career paths include professional forestry, logging, and DEC licensed guiding.
Too often, individuals will stumble upon a piece of Chaga thinking they can make a quick buck. So they harvest it, throw it in a bucket, and leave it in the back of their truck for a week, only to find a bucket of white moldy Chaga once they finally get around to trying to do something with it.
Although we cannot prevent this from happening throughout the world by novice individuals, we do our part to reprimand this sort of behavior and change the culture. At the same time, it is a policy understood by our team of harvesters that we’ll only accept fresh Chaga (it must arrive at our facility within 24 hours of its harvest). This guarantees zero spoilage and proper handling.
The Adirondack Park is the largest publicly protected area in the contiguous United States. As such, any harvesting activities in the Adirondacks are subject to increased scrutiny and accountability.
We believe that transparency & oversight is helpful to our business. In 2019, we presented our harvesting methods and business model to the board of the Adirondack Park Association at the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation Headquarters in Raybrook, NY. We are proud to have been awarded a certificate of appreciation. The entire presentation has been made public and can be watched here.
We were the first to make microscopic images of Chaga spores publicly available. I am currently studying Chaga spores and their ability to grow on various mediums which could then be used as an inoculate material in order to wild-cultivate Chaga in any future event that called for an aggressive reintroduction of Chaga to wild forests.
While we control the harvesting practices on our leased land, we cannot control what harvesters outside of Birch Boys do. Because of this, we are actively working on a solution to make wild-cultivation of Chaga a possibility. This solution will be relevant to us in the event of a company land acquisition, where we could use it as a means of internal Chaga propagation. It also may become relevant to state governments and/or public conservation departments who may seek to replenish Chaga that has been depleted by uninformed harvesting practices around the world.
This last step may seem silly to some, but it is arguably the most important part of our approach to sustainable wild-crafting. As a 23 year old, there is still much I don’t know. Yet, nearly everything I do know came from questions I asked while in nature.
When I was harvesting Chaga with my Grandmother 8 years ago in our farmers market days, the sustainability question was first posed by a customer. To be honest, I wasn’t sure if the long-term sustainability of what I was doing would remain viable. I asked my Grandmother what she thought about the sustainability of harvesting Chaga, and I’ll never forget the way she chuckled and suggested that I ask permission.
At the time, I thought this was a joke. But as I’ve grown & my business has grown, I’ve realized the brilliance in that comment. Whether due to large volume orders, questions from potential investors, or the more recent alarm raised by the United Plant Savers, there will always be situations that call for re-evaluating the status of one’s harvesting practices, and there is only one place to go to get the right answer.
The only true way to understand if your actions as a harvester are acceptable is to ask the organism itself. Let it be your guide & your teacher. I began asking Chaga for permission, and I started to find answers. Chaga holds the data & the wisdom to guide us in the right direction.
I did not start Birch Boys to fulfill a get rich quick plan. On the contrary, I’m quite certain I will be working closely with Chaga for my entire adult life. It would break my heart to see a world in which wild Chaga becomes endangered.
I’m here to pass along some good news from the King: Wild Adirondack Chaga is healthy & thriving. We should all do our part to keep close tabs on this topic. Remain mindful, deliberate, and constructive as you approach actions in the forest, as well as when you consider which brands to spend money on. Take into account their sourcing and/or harvesting practices because after all, we vote with our dollars. A vote for Birch Boys is a vote for wild Chaga.
Nature is abundant in more ways than most of us allow ourselves to perceive. Nature rewards helpful behavior. Ask with an open mind, and if your interests are aligned with that of sustainable outcomes, you shall receive. I’m often asked why I haven’t tried to commercially farm Chaga, and my answer will always be that there is no reason to. Nature provides it to us, and there’s no way I could farm it better.
Just think… Somehow a microscopic Chaga spore is able to infiltrate & colonize a 100+ year old tree, resist its immune responses, produce a mass that gets larger and larger year by year, and finally overtake the tree, kill it to sporulate, and do it all over again. Magically, this black death to birch trees offers a wide variety of healing compounds to mammals. I beleive Chaga was designed intelligently to do just that, and I believe that we as humans were designed intelligently to be keepers of the forest, regardless of how far the masses have strayed. We all have interconnected roles.
I don’t view Chaga as a weak or vulnerable organism. I view Chaga as the single most aggressive & powerful fungus on Earth. Let’s not forget that we are discussing nature’s enigma... the Godfather of Northern forests… the KING of herbs. I’m honored that Chaga revealed itself to me at such a young age, and I’m grateful to have found my role in life through Chaga. Thank you for caring enough about this topic to read this, and I hope it instills confidence in your decision to support our brand & operation.
PS - Please enjoy this wild Chaga harvesting montage: