Inonotus obliquus, commonly known as chaga (a Latinisation of the Russian word чага), is a fungus in the family Hymenochaetaceae. It is parasitic on birch and other trees. It is irregularly formed and has the appearance of burnt charcoal. It is not the fruiting body of the fungus, but a sclerotium or mass of mycelium, mostly black because of the presence of massive amounts of melanin.
It was first identified and described by Persoon (1801), who named it Boletus obliquus. Then, it was renamed Polyporus obliquus by Fries (1830), followed by Quélet (1888), who called it Poria obliqua (under the bark of dry Fagus). In 1927, Bourdot and Galzin called it Xanthochrous obliquus, and its current name, Inonotus obliquus, was given by Pilàt (1936, 1942), who studied it thoroughly. Chaga has oblique pores—the origin of its species name obliquus. The first known researcher of chaga's chemical composition in 1864 was Dragendorff, a professor of pharmacy at the University of Tartu in Estonia!!
What is the history of chaga?
Nobody knows exactly how far back chaga usage goes. Stories about its benefits have been passed down for centuries in Estonian, Siberian, Alaskan, North American Native Indian and Finnish (Sami) cultures for generations.
In modern times, it became famous thanks to Cancer Ward, a book by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, published in 1968.
The character Oleg Kostoglotov, a political prisoner, having been released from a prison camp discovered he had developed cancer. Assigned to a clinic to receive high doses of radiation, Kostoglotov tells his fellow patients that he wishes he could have been given a simpler "peasant’s cure".
“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.”
- Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Cancer Ward (1968)
In the chapter entitled “The Cancer in the Birch Tree”, Solzhenitsyn describes Sergey N. Maslennikov, a Russian doctor born in 1887, noted that he didn’t have any cancer patients among the peasants that he treated. He discovered that the peasants would save money on buying tea, instead cutting down and brewing up the birch mushroom. He believed that, unknowingly, they had been preventing and treating cancer for centuries. As he began to experiment with chaga, he considered whether should it be boiled and at what temperature, how many doses should be given and which tumours responded, etc. Then he began to treat his patients with the chaga mushroom.
In Estonia, Finland, Russia, and Northern America & Canada, chaga has been known and consumed for many centuries. It has been said that the Russian ruler Vladimir Monomahh was cured of lip cancer in the 12th century. (Shashkina et al., 561: 2006)
Chaga has been used in Russian, Polish and Estonian folk medicine since the 16th century for gastrointestinal malignancies, cardiovascular diseases and diabetes. In Western Siberia, chaga has also been used to relieve tuberculosis. Russian and Siberian chaga folk medicine is used in the treatment of various cancers, including inoperable breast cancer, and cancer of the lip, salivary gland, lung, skin and colorectal cancer.
In Finnish folk medicine, chaga has been used to treat diabetes, gastritis, Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, psoriasis, asthma and other conditions. In the past, it is claimed the Sami tribe drank chaga every day.
Who uses chaga today and why?
Chaga has become extremely popular in recent years for people who want to improve their health and general well-being. It seems that women like (or buy) it more than men for some reason. Perhaps because they are traditionally the family health guardians more than men?
Chaga can be used as a fabric dye (producing a yellowish-mustardy colour) and in Russia, a water extract has been used to wash (disinfect) new born babies. But the most common uses are to make tea and stock as a food and drink supplement. People use chaga for its reported health benefits.
It can also be used as a firelighter. Many bushcrafters insist it holds an ember for hours and can even be carried, burning slowly, in a pouch.
How much chaga extract should I consume?
There are no rigid guidelines or science on this. Personally, we consume one or two teas a day. Perhaps 3-5g of raw chaga. Some people say up to 10g a day is fine.
Research suggests chaga may hold blood thinning properties. People taking Warfarin or other blood thinning medication should avoid chaga.
Research suggests chaga may hold anti-diabetic properties. Diabetics already taking blood sugar-lowering medications should avoid chaga.
Chaga contains high levels of oxalates (so does black tea by the way) and so like many foods with high oxalate levels, it should be consumed in moderation or kidney stones could result.
And for the sake of common sense we suggest pregnant women and young children should not consume chaga without consulting a doctor first.