Chaga, scientifically called Inonotus obliquus, normally grows on birch trees in colder habitats of the northern hemisphere. This special mushroom is packed with nutrients and it has been used for centuries in Russia and other parts of Eastern Europe as a medicinal herb. In fact, chaga’s high nutritional value has won it popularity across the world. There are numerous ways of adding chaga in one’s diet, but most people prefer to consume it in the form of tea primarily due to its taste. In fact, the flavor of Chaga tea is quite similar to that of coffee.
Upon first glance, it’s hard to imagine that this fungus would serve any purpose in benefiting human health. Centuries of traditional use and current research, however, suppress that skepticism, if only by a little.
Chaga is a sterile fungal body usually found on birch trees, though also rarely found on elm, beech, and hornbeam. Its outer material is usually black, brittle, and cracked, while its interior is golden-orange and cork-like.
From the outside, Chaga looks nothing like the typical mushroom. It has a hard, cracked blackish or dark-brown colored exterior, which gives it the appearance of burnt charcoal. The mushroom’s interior on the other hand, is much softer with a rusty, yellow-brown color and grainy, corky texture.
To distinguish chaga from a tree burl, ask yourself these questions:
- Is this the right ecosystem for chaga? Chaga usually grows in the circumpolar boreal deciduous forests.
- On which tree is it growing? Chaga grows almost exclusively on birch, though as stated previously, it has been found rarely on elm, beech, and hornbeam.
- What color is it? The outer surface of chaga is cracked, brittle, and relatively black (if not rather dark). A tree burl’s color resembles its host tree, perhaps a bit darker.
- What color is the interior? I don’t recommend haphazardly damaging formations on trees, though sometimes the interior color can be seen naturally without any effort, or simply by removing a small piece by hand. The interior of chaga is an unmistakable golden-orange color (see image below).
- Does the specimen appear to be a separate species, distinct from its host tree? If so, it may be chaga. If the specimen appears to be an extension of the tree, bark and all, you may be looking at a burl.
- Is the growth phallic in nature, or rounded? Chaga usually grows as a phallic, cone-like extension. Tree burls are generally rounded outgrowths. These are shape generalizations for both, as appearances can vary widely, though the majority of chaga fungi and tree burls I’ve seen fit these characteristics.