A Medicinal Fungus
by Kahlee Keane
“He could not imagine
any greater joy than to go away into the woods for months
on end, to break off this chaga, crumble it, boil it up on
a campfire, drink it and get well like an animal. To walk
through the forest for months, to know no other care than
to get better! Just as a dog goes to search for some mysterious
grass that will save him…”
—From Cancer Ward by Aleksandr (Alexander) Solzhenitsyn
I read Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s novel Cancer
Ward in the early 70s: it’s a painful book in
many ways, but an excellent read. My first knowledge of the
powerful medicine called “chaga” was found within
its pages, however, it would be more than a decade before
I would find it for myself.
During the mid-80s I was living on an island off the coast
of New Brunswick doing medicinal plant research when I had
what some would call a “medicine dream.” Central
to the dream was the clear image of chaga hugging the trunk
of a white birch. It is my belief that this dream came as
a reminder of buried knowledge, a rekindling and renewing
of interest in the possibilities of this wild medicine.
The dream also gave me “heads up” in a very
literal way, for just a few days later I found myself deep
in a birch forest on a remote corner of the island looking
up at several large conks of chaga, dark and chunky against
the delicacy of the birch’s white paper bark.
Since that day I have collected information on this fungus
and although chaga is not abundant in Canada I have found
specimens in the northern regions of most Canadian provinces.
This birch fungus known as chaga or “tsyr” has
been part of Russia’s traditional medicine since the
sixteenth century. In recent years its therapeutic qualities
have been validated by such people as Dr. Kirsti Kahlos, a
pharmacognycist at the University of Helsinki who has been
looking at the action of a triterpenes
found in chaga. Kahlos and other researchers have found this
constituent active against influenza, inflammation of the
stomach and intestines, as well specific tumours.
Recently Sergiy and Katya Nokhrin brought me up to date
on the use of chaga in modern day Russia. The Nokhrins told
me that historically some Russians drank chaga as a daily
beverage just as we do coffee or tea. It has been found that
among these groups there is a dramatically low incidence of
cancer. These people were unknowingly taking a preventative
medicine while enjoying a cup of tasty and inexpensive tea.
The Nokhrins told me that chaga is utilized in hospitals
in Russia and the Ukraine via a botanical product called Bifungin,
as well as in a tea form or homeopathically. Sergiy was careful
to point out that it was not a cure
for cancer but a medicine that assists the patient to heal
and strengthen so that they may resume a normal life. Once
again we see the traditional or folk medicines being offered
to patients along with orthodox treatments.
The following is a more detailed description and information
on this interesting fungus:
The fungus is most frequently encountered in the sterile
condition on living trunks. The conks, acting like a wedge,
burst through the bark and appear as large gall-like structures,
varying in size from 5 to 20 cm diameter, with a very irregular,
cracked, and deeply fissured surface.
The structure forces the bark apart, keeping the wound open
and allowing the fungus to enter unaffected wood. The conks
have a hard, woody to almost stony texture. When removed from
the tree the internal surface is rusty brown, somewhat granular
in appearance, and is often mottled with whitish or cream-coloured
The fungus fruits on the dead standing or fallen trunk possibly
as long as 6 years after the tree has died. The inconspicuous
and short-lived fruiting bodies form under the bark extending
for several meters over the wood.
Harvesting, Preparation, and Storing: The fresh, sterile
conks are gathered from autumn until spring. Taking out the
inside layers, cut into slices and gently dry at room temperature
or between 50-60ºC. Store in airtight containers out
of the light.
Part Used: The inside three layers of the sterile conks.
Habitat: This fungus grows mainly on live birch. It is also
found on alder and beech trees to a smaller extent.
Therapeutics: Chaga relieves pain and improves a patient’s
condition by reducing sickness and heartburn. Taken in the
early stages of the disease, it can help to prevent further
The fungus is apparently non-toxic and has no side effects.
Some sources indicate that while a patient is receiving treatment
of this kind, intravenous applications of glucose and penicillin-3
should be discontinued. It is also recommended that the patient’s
diet should consist mainly of mild vegetables with limited
meat and fats; smoked products and strong spices should be
Physiological action: Alterative. Anodyne. Anti-tumour.
Preparation: The dried, shredded inner part of the conk
is softened by soaking in cold but previously boiled water
for 4 hours. Filter and save both the liquid portion as well
as the softened fungus. An infusion is prepared by pouring
sterilized boiled water, cooled to 50º C, over the fungus
(use a weight ratio of about 1:5 fungus to water). Let stand
at room temperature for 48 hours. The mixture is then filtered
and the water in which the fungus was originally soaked is
added to the filtrate.
Dosage: The infusion can be used for up to 4 days. Three
glasses should be taken per 24-hour period, approximately
30 minutes before meals. It takes some 7 kg a month of the
fungus for a course of treatment, lasting 4 to 7 months, with
short breaks if necessary.
Note: It is important to never overheat the fungus and to
treat it as you would yeast, never subjecting it to too much
heat or cold.
Chaga is hard to find in the woods and difficult to procure
commercially. Check with your health food store, naturopath,
or homeopath as to its availablity. Some Russian entrepreneurs
are harvesting and exporting raw chaga to botanical manufacturers
throughout the world. You can check on the internet by searching
under chaga or Inonotus obliquus. Because of its diverse health
benefits it is well worth the search.
Root Woman (Kahlee Keane)
is an eco-herbalist and educator with a deep interest in the
protection of the wild medicinal plants. Root Woman &
Dave’s new field guide, The Standing People, contains
over 400 colour photographs and information on over 100 plants
of the Prairie Provinces. To order send $29.95 plus $7 postage
to: #27, 2001- 8th St. East, Saskatoon, SK S7H OT8. Email:
or visit www.connect.to/rootwoman.