Cottage Q&A: Harvesting chaga mushrooms

chaga mushrooms By Aleksei Marinchenko/Shutterstock

I’ve been hearing a lot about the benefits of chaga mushrooms. I’m pretty sure they’re growing on some of the trees at my cottage. Can I cut them off and eat them?—Christian Martinez, via email

Well, you can. But should you? “Pretty sure” isn’t the same as “dead certain.” Eating wild mushrooms is a fine idea if you’re positive that you’ve correctly ID’d them. But it’s a sweaty, belly-clutching emergency—and, worst-case scenario, possible death—if you’re wrong.

Chaga is distinctive: a rough, black, carbonaceous-like blob that sprouts only on birch trees. “Sometimes it looks like a piece of hardened lava or a railroad clinker,” says Greg Thorn, an associate professor of fungal ecology and systematics at Ontario’s Western University. “It’s best thought of as a parasite, but a tree can survive with it for years. Cutting it off won’t help the tree.”

It might be hard work for you, though: “It’s almost rock-hard,” says Thorn. You’ll likely need an axe or a sturdy knife to remove it, plus a large grater or a meat grinder if you want to break it down into a powder for tea or a tincture.

Before you bust out this weaponry, you should know that while there are dozens of studies on chaga—some research suggests that it may have anti-cancer, antiviral, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant properties and that it can help treat a variety of issues, from high blood pressure to intestinal worms—“its medicinal properties have not been fully scientifically proven,” says Thorn.

Hey, if you’re into mushrooms, you can harvest them really easily from the grocery store. If you have worms, you should probably see a doctor.

Mushrooms are fabulous! Here are 9 fantastic facts about them.

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