Two of the things I probably loved the most as a teenager were sports and Russian novels. My favorite novelist was Dostoyevsky, and at one point my sister claimed that I had morphed into the underground man.
Another favorite was Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who wrote the supposedly autobiographical account The Cancer Ward, in which the main character had been sent to Siberia by the Soviet state and contracted an aggressive skin cancer. As a result of the cancer, he was exiled to the cancer ward, a gruesome place where Siberian prisoners were sent to die with essentially no medical care, not even pain medications. Understanding the desperate situation he was in, he escaped from the cancer ward and found refuge in an isolated Siberian village, where he was miraculously nursed back to health. The main medicine that resulted in this profound healing from what was clearly a case of metastatic melanoma was a tea made from a fungus growing on birch trees. This was my first exposure to the chaga mushroom.
Many years later, during my training in anthroposophical medicine, I learned that Rudolf Steiner spoke about the healing properties of birch trees, especially on malignant skin cancer. Steiner, using the principles of something we refer to now as the Doctrine of Signatures, which states that herbs resembling parts of the body can be used to treat ailments of those body parts, claimed that the peeling bark of the white birch trees was an image in nature of the properties of healthy skin. We all know from the many uses of birch bark that it is impermeable to water (hence, birch bark canoes), strongly anti-microbial (which is why many traditional food containers were made from birch bark) and extremely durable (birch containers, like the salt container on my counter, last for decades). These properties are clear images for what the skin should be – an impermeable layer that is strong, durable and protects us from water loss and infection.
The properties of the birch tree are relevant to a discussion of chaga mushrooms because chaga is a polypore (a type of mushroom) that almost exclusively grows in the wild on birch trees. Chaga mushrooms are large, black, fungal-looking growths on the birch trees of the northern Siberian and Canadian forests. They are the spitting image of what an untreated melanoma would look like if left to grow. Again, as suggested by the Doctrine of Signatures, chaga extracts and teas have been used for millennia by traditional peoples to treat both growths on the skin and the internal organs.
Interestingly, medical science has become interested in the healing properties of the chaga mushroom and the birch tree as well and has found many active ingredients that might account for these effects. The main effects of chaga mushroom tea and extracts are regulating the lipid profile in the blood, reducing blood pressure, normalizing blood sugar and, most important, preventing and treating malignant growths, in particular, melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.
Research in the past few decades has shown that birch trees produce a chemical called betulinum (“betula alba” is the botanical name for birch trees), which is a potent anti-cancer medicine, particularly active in preventing the growth or spread of melanoma cells. Betulinum is concentrated by the chaga mushroom, which takes it into its body after extracting it from the birch tree. This is truly, again, yet another example of the ways the natural world speaks to us. If we are afflicted with a potentially dangerous, black growth (like many cancers) either on our skin or our organs, nature puts a black, cancerous growth out in the forests, which contains substances that can counteract these growths. It’s as if nature is giving us a blueprint to read, if only we have the eyes to see and the heart and mind to be open to its wonders.
For many years I have given all of my melanoma patients and most of my other cancer patients some sort of chaga preparation to take essentially for the rest of their lives. Some of the best results I have seen with cancer patients have been in those who made the consumption of chaga as much a part of their lives as brushing their teeth. As a preventative, chaga tea is the best form to use. For those with cancer, it is best to combine the tea, which contains the water-soluble components, with a few dropper-fulls of an alcoholic chaga extract, which concentrates the fat-soluble components of the chaga. I have been so impressed with the health-maintenance properties of chaga that for years I have consumed a chaga tea drink as a part of my daily diet.
As a consequence of my long interest in chaga, I am now thrilled to include a sustainably and wild-harvested chaga product in our Dr Cowan’s Garden line of products. Our chaga nuggets, which I have found to be the most convenient and economical form, are collected by a wonderful company in the woods of northern Quebec. They are harvested carefully, by hand, with workers using horse-drawn transportation so as to not disturb the trees or the integrity of the forest.
To use our chaga nuggets, take any multiple of 1/3 of a cup of the nuggets to 4 cups of water, simmer gently for 2 to 3 hours in a pot that's partly covered, strain and keep for up to a week in the refrigerator. As a preventative, I usually use about ½ -1 cup of the tea each day. The nuggets can be frozen between uses and used 3 to 4 times before being composted. The usual daily dose is ½ cup to 1 cup of the tea, which can be diluted, if desired.
The taste of chaga tea is earthy, but it grows on you, and in no time, if you miss a day, something inside of you will whisper, “I wish I could have my chaga tea today.” And we discovered that it adds a surprisingly delicious taste to maple syrup-sweetened cheesecake.