Have you ever heard of chaga? I recently saw a television spot about harvesting this fungus in northern Minnesota and selling it as a medicinal.
Chaga is the common name for a bracket fungus (Inonotus obliquus) that parasitizes birch trees. A sterile conk grows just under the bark of the tree trunk, and as it grows it pushes outward, turns black, and looks as if the tree has been charred or burned. Some describe it as looking like burned charcoal. Eventually a fruiting structure will be produced that looks similar to the conks on aspen trees with pores on the underside for spore dispersal.
Chaga has a long history of medicinal use in Europe, Russia and some other areas. It has been used to treat a variety of ailments ranging from cancer treatments to boosting the immune system and as an inti-inflammatory. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn even referred to it in his book The Cancer Ward.
To harvest chaga you just break off little pieces of the material, dry it, and then grind it into a powder. The powder can then be used to make a tea or chai. However, chaga loses its medicinal properties and becomes bitter when the tree dies, so it should be harvested from a living tree.
Scientific proof concerning the efficacy and safety of this fungus is lacking. However, the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center’s website notes that some studies have shown the fungus may have potential as an antitumor, anti-mutagenic, antiviral, and antidiabetic. That being said, harvesting chaga reminds me of the collecting of purple coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia) roots a few years ago. Some of you may recall collectors were traipsing the prairie to dig up Echinacea roots to treat a variety of ailments.
I am not aware if chaga has been documented in North Dakota, but it certainly can be found in Minnesota. But if you happen to see some paper birch with a black charcoal-like growth protruding out of the trunk it may be chaga. And if you get the urge to harvest it, pass it up. The efficacy is unproven, and that birch tree is probably of greater value than the chaga.