The Sustainability Debate on Chaga

Many times along the way I have encountered people who have asked me, “how sustainable is it to harvest Chaga?” I’ve heard some debate on this issue in various conversations, forums, posts and groups. That’s an important conversation and a worthy concern. Chaga is a sacred medicine, to say first, it is an unusual growth on a very medicinal tree, the combination or relationship is very special. I, myself, believe in this, give gratitude when I find it and approach my business the same way. As a forger, wild crafter, herbalist, or what ever title you give it, those of us that gather herbs, mushrooms and plants and make medicine and other products, should all be as responsible and sustainable as we can. Chaga and other medicinal mushrooms should not be looked at as a novelty or trend or used as such. I see that in marketing and bigger companies selling it in ways that don’t bring the customer the proper benefits, though it is sold as if it does. To explain better, Chaga should be slow brewed, for several hours. There are many, many videos online of different methods people use, some quite interesting and I recommend watching some. Some products I have seen show quick steeps of minutes and adding it to coffee grounds, also a fast method. I can see some benefit obviously getting out but surely not it’s full potential. These end up being mass produced and kind of a waste of this precious resource. I believe in individuals that have the proper practices and harvesting techniques. They can provide for their local communities, if not in one of those communities I recommend researching if the company you get your Chaga from is sustainable. There are many people in a community that physically can’t or don’t have time or lack the skill to gather their own medicine. Small forgers like myself help them get what they need. There are only a few places in our country where Chaga grows and within those places there is vast untouched, unseen forest. To try and guess how much of that forest contains Chaga is just not possible, without first hand knowledge. When it comes to bigger companies, they seem to be in Chaga rich environments such as Maine, Canada, Siberia, Russia, parts of Europe and Alaska. The Blue Ridge Mountains are a rich environment as well. As long as I have been in Asheville, I have only met a hand full of people who harvest Chaga, even though I see where others, unseen have left their marks out in the forest. That being said, I feel Chaga is not in danger in our region at all. Chaga grows really well in some of our State and National parks here and all of that is protected by law.

So when I say I do sustainable harvest, I mean I practice the method of leaving 30-50% to regrow, and it regrows! I can say I have seen this happen several times. I travel around often on private property that has given me permission. I don’t forage in State parks or Federal areas. Chaga only grows in our high elevations in areas that are predominantly Birch and Pine forests. I have traveled to upstate NY, Eastern Canada and Maine to forage and study and though each area had different elevations and ecosystems, our region is similar in how well it grows in abundance. I would be curious to see any studies done, by who and what the results were. People believe that it is not abundant in our region, judging from small areas that are popular and where people use careless methods. I have seen where people dug into the tree or took very small, still growing pieces. I have seen where areas that have multiple trees full of Chaga, hot spots I call them, have been stripped and all of it taken. I believe in leaving a good percentage growing wild, untouched. I have been doing my work on a small scale for over 10 years and have witnessed the  regrowth of several pieces I once collected, it regenerates itself until the tree finally dies! That to me is amazing and the definition of a sustainable resource. I have seen its abundance over the years on countless hikes in different areas, I study these trends as well as foraging. I often get deep in the forest, off trail and see so much growing, it’s a magical sight, I doubt anyone is keeping count on that. We are in an ancient forest, peoples long before us gathered Chaga and used it for medicine, it is here for us to use. i have seen examples of Chaga that molded, fell off the tree and went unused completely, that is certainly part of the natural system of the forest and is needed but also it is medicine gone unused. I also have worked with other Chaga foragers to learn the best methods to keep it sustainable. I do see bigger companies that over harvest and also I have heard and believe logging and development to be the two biggest dangers to wiping out resources such as Chaga.

There is also the science component to the debate. Some say it hasn’t been tested enough, and there is no clinical human tests. I disagree with that statement. There has been testing done in other countries by established researchers and great results shown. Besides that, peoples in Eastern Europe, Canada, Japan and in Chinese medicine, have been using medicinal mushrooms such as Chaga, Reishi and Turkey Tail for centuries! That seems enough proof for me. I do know that over the years of doing this and talking with people that use Chaga and other mushrooms daily, weekly and continue to come back with details on how they feel better, that is also proof to me. There are people all around us that have weak immune systems, have arthritis, cancers, nerve problems, kidney, liver, stomach problems, depression , and the list goes on, these people can be benefiting from these wild medicines. They can improve those conditions without pharmaceuticals that have lasting effects, while supporting local small business.

I am a very small little business and don’t just sell Chaga, that’s a portion of my offerings, I sell equal or more of Reishi, Lions Mane, and Turkey Tail products. All these have important healing properties that benefit many people. I believe also in teaching others, I learned from many people, and it is tradition to hand on our knowledge, not hoard it to ourselves or keep it secret simply for profit. I teach people how to identify, gather, and make their own food and medicine. There truly is enough for everyone. It’s important to keep the practice of wild crafting to a healthy minimum and only harvest what is needed and used properly. I don’t see Chaga going into danger in our region in our lifetime, there’s way too much wild, unexplored areas. It was here long before us and will be here long after we are gone. That’s why I teach my son, in hopes he to will pass that knowledge on, as has always been done. In short, Chaga is a special resource, it should be carefully harvested, and regarded as a treasure. It should also be respected for it’s medicinal properties and healing elements. One last part to mention is that Chaga is an extremely slow grower, taking 3-5 years to reach maturity and can grow for up to 20 years. I have not found any research on how it spreads, though I see various patterns in the forest. Keeping in mind that it does take time to grow and regrow, is all the more reason to treat it with the utmost respect. It’s important to keep an eye on plants that are over harvested and put in place the correct protections. Mushrooms in general are amazingly resilient, they have the ability to reproduce, regenerate and survive, Chaga, though not an actual mushroom but rather a mycelium mass, is just the same. And that’s my take, respectfully, on this issue. Thanks for reading.

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