I don’t camp as much as I did in my youth; but when I do, my go to tinder is chaga mushroom, and it has made camping a joy to experience.
Chaga mushroom; or true tinder fungus, is a survivalist or bushman’s multi tool fungus. The dried light brown inside of chaga is used to start fires as the smallest spark can ignite it. The smoke from burning chaga is a mosquito repellent and a medicinal tea is made from chaga.
Often called a super food, chaga grows in deciduous and birch forests of Russia, Korea, Eastern and Northern Europe, as well as northern areas of the United States and the southern half of Canada.
This Instructable is on how I keep and use Chaga.
Step 1: Identifying Chaga Mushrooms
Whether you call it Chaga Mushroom, True Tinder Fungus, or Inonotus obliquus, chaga is a parasitic fungus found on Birch and some other hardwood trees in the northern hemisphere growing in deciduous forests.
Chaga is a large black or brown parasitic fungus belonging to the Basidiomycetes family that grows on the side of birch trees and resembles a dark mass of burnt tree bark. Found mostly on white, yellow, and black birch trees they can be found on other hardwoods. Thriving on the cold winter climates of its environment it only grows in the wild, and repeated attempts to cultivate it have all ended in failure.
During its growing period of five to seven years, it extracts most of its host tree's nutrients and stores them for itself. This process leads to the high level of antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals, that can be extracted from the mushroom when it's ready to be harvested.
Step 2: False Tinder Fungus
Shelf mushrooms like Piptoporus betulinus (The white shelf fungus on the white birch), and others that grow on the sides of trees are often called false tinder fungus. Dried they do make a good tinder for starting fires but few are good for all three uses like chaga.
Step 3: Tools
To harvest chaga all you need is a hatchet or a good sturdy knife and a bag to put the chaga in.
To prepare chaga for storage all you need is a place to dry it for a couple days.
To use chaga as tinder all you need is a striker and a piece of chert or flint. For chert the rock just needs to be hard enough to raise a spark when struck with high carbon steel.
To use chaga as a smudge all you need is a safe place to burn it.
And to make chaga tea all you need is a pot of simmering water.
But if you like it ground, cut into thin slices, or sweetened you may need other tools like saws, Mortar and Pestle, or a hand mill. I will explain these in the steps to come.
Step 4: Harvesting Chaga
In North America, chaga is most commonly found on white or paper birch and yellow birch trees. Paper birch is a common forest tree with a white bark that exfoliates in broad, curling sheets.
During fall when the birch trees have gone dormant for winter; the chaga is at its peak nutrient value. You can harvest through the fall and winter until the sap starts running. Do not harvest chaga when the sap starts running or during the summer months, (It can kill the chaga or the tree).
If you want chaga for all three uses; harvest chaga from living trees only, chaga is a parasite of the birch tree, so when the tree dies, so does the chaga mushroom. How to determine if the tree is living or not is not always easy. During the growing season, the presence of leaves on at least some branches will tell you that the tree is living. However, during the winter months when chaga is harvested, this is harder to determine. Living trees produce winter buds, so find a tree with some living winter buds on some of the branches.
The chaga infection will ultimately kill the host tree, but the tree can survive for decades if not mistreated. When collecting the chaga, leave some of the chaga behind, about 15 to 20%, this will help keep the chaga healthy and allow the sclerotia (The lump and hard black outer skin), to regrow.
Take a hatchet and whack a piece about the size of a grapefruit off, or use a very sturdy knife and pry a piece off.
Step 5: Preparing Chaga
Preparing chaga after harvesting is important; chaga will burn while it is still moist after harvesting, but if it is not properly dried after its collection it will mold with time. To dry larger chunks of chaga, it should be broken into smaller chunks, chaga is hard so for this you will need a hatchet or a very sturdy knife. The chunks can be placed on a pan, sheet, tarp or other surface and then placed near a mild heat source in a dry place.
Do not place the chunks of chaga in the oven or microwave, it will catch fire at very low temperatures compared to other forms of tinder. Dry the chunks of chaga for a few days on a rack near a wood stove or in a sunny window. A dehydrator set at 120⁰ F, (50⁰ C) or less also works well.
Step 6: Chaga Tinder
Starting a fire in the wilderness with primitive tools can be a challenge even for an experienced bushman; using the best tinder can make all the difference, and chaga is one of the best if not the best tinder you can find. Chaga for tinder can be harvested from dead birch as well as living birch, when using chaga as tinder the brown insides is the part you want, the hard black outer skin of the sclerotia resists ignition from a spark.
Dead chaga on dead birch can be easily identified in the summer, the tree will not have leaves growing on its branches. In the winter a dead birch may have the bark peeling off the tree down to the wood or the tree will be covered in shelf fungus like Piptoporus betulinus.
My preference is to cut the chaga into thin slices about ¼ of an inch (5 mm) with a saw, and then dry the slices on a cookie sheet or rack for a few days.
Once dry the chaga is easily ignited with a piece of chert and striker or flint and striker.
I like a flat piece of chaga on a flat piece of chert so I have a wide aria to catch the spark from the striker.
Strike the chert with the striker and when a spark lands on the chaga blow gently on the ember until it is going good, then add it to your tinder bundle.
If you harvest live chaga for tinder; you can use the pieces of chaga for tea, and when it is finished for making tea, you can dry it and use it for tinder. I have tried this and it works well.
Step 7: Chaga Smudge
Chaga for smudge can be harvested from dead birch as well as living birch; it smells like incense and covers up unpleasant odors. When using chaga as a smudge to repel mosquitoes or just as incense it does not matter if you remove the hard black outer skin of the sclerotia, as long as the chunks have some of the light brown inside of the chaga.
When I am fishing and using chaga as a mosquito repellent; I like an airtight bottle to carry my smudge, this way I can use the tin lid as a holder to burn a piece of chaga on and when I want to extinguish the chaga I just seal it in the jar and starve it of oxygen. I do not like to carry live embers in the bush, one mistake and you have a forest fire, besides chaga relights easy enough.
Like chaga for tinder; if you harvest live chaga, you can use the pieces of chaga for tea, and when it is finished for making tea, you can dry it and use it for a smudge also.
Step 8: Chaga Tea
Chaga for tea should be harvested live from live trees; there are as many ways to prepare chaga tea as there are people that drink chaga tea. There is ground chaga used for tea with or without the hard black outer skin of the sclerotia. There are chunks of chaga used for tea with or without the hard black outer skin of the sclerotia. And many others believe you should keep the hard outer skin of the sclerotia and steep or boil large chunks of chaga for hours repeatedly to make chaga tea.
Chaga mushrooms are used to make a tea, which is thought to have health benefits such as helping to prevent and cure cancer, promoting digestive health, strengthening the body and helping a person to live longer. Chaga mushrooms have one of the highest levels of antioxidants found in nature, and they are packed full of many essential vitamins and nutrients.
It has been used as a health supplement for centuries by people in Japan, China and Siberia, and it's now approved for use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Russia has recognized it as an accepted cancer treatment since the 1950s.
Step 9: Ground Chaga Tea
Since chunks of chaga; large or small with or without the hard black outer skin of the sclerotia, can take hours to steep or boil to make tea I like my chaga for tea ground. It steeps in minutes and I can have my tea within 30 minutes of waking up as long as the fire is hot.
You can grind chaga four ways; break up the chaga in small pieces and grind it in a meat grinder or an electric coffee grinder, both of which will break up the hard black outside of the sclerotia, however the meat grinder makes very coarse grains of chaga. Or you can grind it like I do with a hand mill, or the traditional way in a mortar and pestle. Personally I like things that do not require electricity just in case there is no electricity.
Step 10: Mortar and Pestle
Grinding chaga with a mortar and pestle is the traditional way of grinding chaga having been used for hundreds of years. Simply break up the chaga in small pieces and dry. Then place the pieces in the mortar and pound until the chaga is the size of granules you want.
There is one down side of using a mortar and pestle, the hard black outside of the sclerotia is very hard to grind in a mortar and pestle. This may be why many people do not use the hard black outside of the sclerotia.
Step 11: Grinding Chaga With a Hand Mill
My hand mill is made with two grinder blades; the first grinder blade is a coarse grinder that will grind coffee, cornmeal, or grits. The second grinder is a fine grinder blade that will grind coarse flower and spices, it will even make nut butters like peanut butter.
The hand mill will grind the hard black outside of the sclerotia; I like the fine grind for faster steeping of the tea.
Take the feed screw nut off the end of the feed screw, place the grinder blade edge against the feed screw, and replace the nut.
Clamp the mill to a solid table or counter.
Load the top of the mill with small chunks of dried chaga and turn the handle.
After a couple turns the ground chaga should start to fall out of the blade end of the mill.
If the screw starts to bind or the crank handle is hard to turn, turn the handle the other way until the feed screw stops binding and continue grinding chaga until you have all the ground chaga you want.
Step 12: Steeping Chaga
Whether I am using chunks of chaga in the bush; or I am making tea at home, I prepare it the same way.
Put one liter of water in a pot and heat the water just enough to make little bubbles rise from the bottom of the pot.
Add a tablespoon of ground chaga in the water and wait two minutes or until the tea is as dark as you like it. If you are steeping a chunk of chaga this can take an hour depending on how dark you like your tea.
Once the tea is how you like it pass it through a coffee filter, with a chunk of chaga just remove the chunk of chaga. Some people keep the grounds or the chunk of chaga and re-steep the grounds until they cannot get tea from the chaga grounds or chunks anymore. Every time you steep chaga it takes longer to reach the desired consistency.
Step 13: And Serve
Chaga tea is a dark tea that tastes somewhat like orange pekoe tea when mixed with rosehips, only without the caffeine. To add a bit of sweetness I add a teaspoon of my homemade Rosehip jelly or false Solomon’s Seal jelly to my chaga tea.