I once dreamed of a day, where at the end of my adult career… I would own enough acres of land to environmentally engineer a thriving habitat for wild mushrooms like Chaga and Reishi. This summer, while marveling at the diameter of a particularly massive hemlock tree teeming with Wild American Reishi (Ganoderma tsugae), I asked myself, how old was this tree whent died? That's when it hit me...
If I lived to 200 years old, it still would not be enough time to raise a forest that could achieve this boyish dream. First and foremost - we need to protect what eligible old growth forests already exist. At Birch Boys, we lease over 100,000 acres of private wild forests for the right to sustainably forage wild mushrooms.
One who harvests Chaga must first understand that Chaga takes a long time to grow. It takes about eight years to reach maturation, and sometimes even longer to produce spores, which will occur as it simultaneously kills its host tree.
It’s important to allow each and every Chaga-infected Birch tree to produce spores. How does one do this? A good place to start is by only harvest pieces of Chaga that are larger than the size of a football. Most of the Chaga you’ll find will be smaller, which means it is in a more vulnerable stage of growth, and simply not ready to be picked.
The second piece of guidance for harvesting Chaga is to always leave 50% behind. This way, we've learned, the Chaga will regrow to an equal (if not larger) size in 2-3 years. But the Chaga is not to be disturbed again until it kills the Birch tree. Ironically, the harvestable part of Chaga is not the part that produces spores. Chaga is not a mushroom so much as a potent source of nutrients that nourishes and protects the fungus within. To be technical, it's sclerotium.
When a chaga-infected birch tree sporulates, the entire vertical length of the tree bark splits open, oozing spores down the trunk. By predicting this timeline with reasonable accuracy (finding it within 1 to 2 months of it sporulation), the harvestable portion of the Chaga's sclerotium can be retrieved, having already served its purpose.
We have taken more proactive measures to see if it's possible to pursue reintroduction of Chaga to forests of clean young birch trees. This ongoing field study will test use of Chaga liquid cultures to manually inoculate Inonotus obliquus into Birch trees.
American Red Reishi (Ganoderma tsugae) is a bit more simple to harvest sustainably in that Reishi tends to fruit repeatedly on the dead hemlock trees time and time again. This is because the mushrooms it produces are just reproductive organs of the fungus that exists within, who may occupy that same hemlock for 6-10 years of its decomposition. The one noteworthy exception about Reishi is that it will only fruit every other summer.
The most important factor in sustainable Reishi foraging is to refrain from harvesting the mushroom until it drops spores. At that point, you can harvest it freely by visual confirmation of the brown colored spore powder that surrounds the mushroom and the hemlock it grows on. Below is a picture to demonstrate the visual presence of spore powder below a mushroom I call White Reishi, or "The Artist's Conk" (Ganoderma applanatum).
You can consciously help the Reishi spores colonize fresh fallen hemlock trees simply by rubbing your spore-covered reishi mushrooms on any and every dead hemlock tree that you find as you carry it out of the forest. Refrain from carrying your mushrooms in a bag. Instead choose a breathable container, such as a woven basket, so that the spores will effortlessly spread in the wind. Leave some Reishi behind at each site of harvest. Leave it for the deer and the beetles.
Any mindful, experienced person who harvests mushrooms with these factors in mind will undoubtedly spread its spores wherever they go. Nature offers us incredible gifts. In return, we respect nature, we give gifts in return, and we help it reproduce. This is no myth - this is symbiotic biology.
Year after year here at Birch Boys, nature’s bounty reveals itself as more powerful than each year before. Our world is constantly changing and evolving. Each and every small action we take while foraging leaves its mark. We fundamentally reject the notion of leave no footprint because we happen to understand that when humans achieve a balanced connection with the natural world, we can play a positive role. A vital role. Strive to leave a profound trace; One that is loving and deliberate. One that nurtures. For it's this that makes us Birch Boys.