by Ron Spinosa
Very few westerners had heard of Chaga before Solzhenitsyn introduced it in his 1968 novel The Cancer Ward The protagonist, Oleg Kostoglotov, is a political prisoner, who has been released from a prison camp only to find that he has developed cancer. He is assigned to a clinic for the treatment available at the time (primarily high-dose radiation), knowing that his prognosis is next to hopeless. In the chapter entitled “The Cancer of the Birch Tree” Oleg tells his fellow cancer sufferers on Ward 13 a tale about “the birch fungus.” He has their rapt attention since “all longed to find some miracle doctor or some medicine that the doctors here didn’t know about . . . or a herbalist or some old witch of a woman somewhere, whom you only had to find and get that medicine from to be saved “(143).
Kostoglotov in fact claimed to know such a doctor, with whom he was in correspondence—Dr. Sergei Maslennikov, an old country doctor from a remote region near Moscow: “He’d worked dozens of years in the same hospital . . . and he noticed that although more and more was being written about cancer in medical literature, there was no cancer among the peasants who came to him . . . so he began to investigate and he discovered a strange thing: that the peasants in his district saved money on their tea, and instead of tea brewed up a thing called “chaga”, or in other words, birch fungus. Actually it’s not even a mushroom but . . . a peculiar growth on old birch trees . . . like spines, black on top and dark brown inside. . . . Anyway Sergei Nikitich Maslennikov had an idea. Mightn’t it be that same ‘chaga’ that had cured the Russian peasants of cancer for centuries without their even knowing it? (144) Solzhenitsyn’s novel is largely autobiographical. After years in a Stalinist labor camp, he was finally released but remained in exile. Shortly thereafter, he too developed a malignant tumor and was a patient on a cancer ward in a clinic in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Did he use chaga to treat his cancer? It certainly seems likely. Did it cure him? Who knows—he got plenty of radiation, too. In any case, he regarded his recovery as miraculous, and it was a turning point in his life. Chaga, in fact, has been used in Russian folk medicine since at least the 16th century. It was used to treat “consumption” and cancers, often stomach and lung cancers, and it was likewise considered useful for other common stomach and intestinal ailments such as gastritis, ulcers, colitis, as well as general pain—thus a panacea, held in high esteem in much the same way as the Reishi and Lingzhi (Ganoderma lucidum) in the Orient. Since 1955, a refined extract of the chaga fungus (“Bifungen”) has been manufactured and sold in Russia for the treatment of stomach and intestinal diseases. I recently learned that chaga continues to be used in Russia. The Minnesota Mycological Society had a fungus exhibit at the Science Museum of Minnesota. There was a big chunk of chaga on the table. One of the visitors was a Russian physician. She immediately recognized it and enthusiastically told us about how it is used in her country. The most frequently cited analytic studies on chaga are those by Kirsti Kahlos, a pharmacognosist at the School of Pharmacy, University of Helsinki, Finland. Kahlos and her colleagues found a wide variety of active triterpenes, which have antitumor properties. Of those, the most active was specified as inotodiol. They also found the compound “betulin”—actually a compound from the birch tree that has anticancer properties. The chaga fungus absorbs and concentrates the betulin (betulinic acid) from the birch and transforms it into a form that can be ingested. Other researchers have found active polysaccharides, a common occurrence in most medicinal mushrooms such as Maitake and Shiitake. Those polysaccharides are known to stimulate the immune system. Kahlos and other researchers, in addition, have found significant anti-cancer activity against specific tumor systems and preliminary evidence of antiviral activity against HIV and influenza viruses. An extensive listing of scientific studies on chaga may be found in the books by Hobs and Stamets. (These and other references are cited at the end of this article.)
I am sure most Mycophile readers already know the mycological identity of chaga: it is the polypore Innonotus obliquus, a northern species that grows on birch, alder, and beech trees. However, only the fruiting bodies growing on birch are considered suitable for medicinal purposes. In its usual form, it is hardly recognizable as a mushroom. One of its common names, the “clinker polypore,” is good a descriptor. It looks like a tumor, with a charred gnarled surface wedged in the trunks of birches. Even though it is a polypore, you will not see any pores as on the underside of shelf-like polypores. It is considered a “sterile conk.” The black outer surface is hard, cracked, and quite irregular. When you (carefully) chop it off the tree trunk with your hatchet, you will find a yellow-brown interior that has a cork-like consistency and is marbled with cream-colored veins. If you are lucky, you can find your chaga growing within reaching distance on the birch trunks; however, the conks often grow at a height of 10 to 30 feet, which poses quite a challenge for collecting.
I’ve heard a rumor that Lee Moellerman, the MMS foray leader, uses a shotgun to blast them loose. I am sure our Russian contemporaries now go out with chain saws. Some of those high altitude prizes may weigh over 10 pounds. The ideal chaga fruiting body is 25 years old. Now consider this: according to one chaga product site, only one birch tree in 15,000 bears chaga! The hard-core mycological types among you may be interested to know that Inonotus obliquus is a white rot fungus in the family hymenochaetaceae. It is monomitic, having only generative hyphae and no clamp connections.
If you want to know what all that means, there is no better source than Tom Volk’s Polypore Primer, which you can visit at botit.botany.wisc.edu/toms_fungi /polypore.html. With the phenomenal popularity of herbal medicine in recent years, there is a growing market for chaga in this country, and a number of chaga preparations may be found for sale on the Internet and in health-food venues. There is even greater demand in Asian countries. Do a Google search on chaga and you will find many sites that have unfamiliar characters requiring translation.
Here is a claim from Eastern Synergy, a chaga marketer from Singapore:
“20–25 times more potent than mushroom like Agaricus, Ganoderma Lucidum.
1gm Chaga mushroom =40 lbs carrots
= 4 gal beet juice
= 4ml clove oil
* Free radical is the cause of cancerous cell (ORAC test:Tufts University)”
Russian entrepreneurs are now searching Siberian forests and collecting enormous quantities of chaga for the expanding chaga trade. But wait! We have not come to the end of the chaga story. Another common name for Inonotus obliquus, in some circles, is “the true tinder fungus.” While researching chaga on the Internet, I found that chaga is well known in the “primitive skills community.” These are folks who enjoy the challenge of starting fires without matches, using methods employed by humans millennia before modern times. One method is the striking together of pieces of iron pyrite to generate aspark, which then falls upon on and ignites the chaga tinder. Masters of this method swear by chaga and have found it to be the best of all tinders. The dried inner portion of the chaga is the part used. It is also sold for use in “fire pistons.” Another polypore, Fomes fomentarius, has a very similar common name, “true tinder polypore” (the common name you will find in most field guides). This was the species I was familiar with for use as tinder. Fomes fomentarius, however, is a much harder fungus than I. obliquus and requires more preparation before use. Chaga is superior because it requires no preparation and it “takes a spark” better.
A final note: Let’s return to The Cancer Ward. One of the characters learns that there are black market “suppliers” of chaga, who command mucho rubles for their product. After the requisite condemnation of this capitalistic enterprise, he objects to the high price. Kostoglotov replies, “Do you think you can just go into the woods and get it? You have to walk about in the forest with a sack and an ax. And in the winter you need skis . . . (48). In early March of this year a group from the Minnesota Mycological Society headed up to the northern part of our state with sacks, hatchets, and cross-country skis. With a good snow cover and leafless trees we could cover lots of ground and scan many birch trees, looking for big black bumps on a white background. After surveying more than 15,000 trees, the Great Chaga Expedition returned with a haul of about 25 pounds of precious fungus. I have been drinking chaga tea daily ever since.