Picking Stories, Selling Chaga: How History Helped Make Chaga a Superfood

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Editor’s Note: This is the fifth post in the Environmental Histories of Foraging series edited by Nicole Miller. You can read other posts in this series here.

On a crisp autumn day along the south shore of Lake Superior, celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay set off into the woods. His quarry was “a true local delicacy: the chaga mushroom.” As his guide explained, this was a special mushroom: “It’s definitely a superfood, it’s full of antioxidants and all kinds of other goodies.” After spotting chaga growing on a birch tree, Ramsay shimmied up and knocked the black, gnarled fungus loose. He sipped chaga tea for the cameras, and later prepared a chaga syrup-glazed woodcock.1

Chaga is not a pretty mushroom. It looks like a “hideous” black lump, a “cancer of the birch” in a memorable phrase from Russian author Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Underneath the black crust the interior is swirled with orange, yellow, and brown. Chaga isn’t actually a mushroom at all. It’s the sterile fungal mass of Inonotus obliquus rather than a fruiting body, but it fetches prices that make it one of the most prized foraged fungi in North America and Eurasia.

chaga on birch
Chaga conk growing out of a white birch, Houghton, MI, USA.
Photo credit: Jonathan Robins, 5 July 2023.

The flavor of chaga tea is earthy, a bit bitter. Yet the taste is not the reason this fungus is turning up in travel shows, farmers’ market stalls, and internet-marketed powders, tinctures, and coffee mixes like one firm’s “Chagaccino.”2 It’s chaga’s “superfood” status that attracts consumers. Websites promoting chaga claim it can boost immunity, reduce inflammation, alter moods, or even treat cancer.3 While chaga can be cultured in a lab, enthusiasts insist that real chaga only grows on trees, appearing on as few as one in every 4,000 birches, according to some claims.4 Chaga’s entry into the pantheon of superfoods—and its transformation into something worth selling—came out of a relatively recent meeting of traditional knowledge and western biomedicine, accelerated by the Internet and a heady mix of bad history.

Bad History

There is clear evidence that people around the boreal north have used chaga for centuries. But these facts, often misquoted, taken out of context, embellished, or simply misunderstood, have been repeated over and over to sell chaga to consumers. They establish new “facts” about chaga’s medicinal potency for consumers, and in doing so help bolster what are still unproven pharmacological claims about chaga’s value for human health. Stories about chaga in the past enable this fungus’s commodification in ways that erase other uses and users from the chaga story.

Skim through a few websites promoting chaga, and you’ll find a litany of false claims. Did Ötzi the Iceman carry chaga through the Alps before his demise 5000 years ago?5 No, though he carried two other fungi that grow on birch trees. Was chaga featured prominently in the ancient Greek medical works of Hippocrates6 or in the ancient Chinese medical text Shennong Ben Cao Jing?7 No, though both authors do discuss other fungi. David Wolfe, an author whose 2012 book Chaga: King of the Medicinal Mushrooms has been credited with launching the current chaga craze, adds ancient Irish druids to a chaga story he traces back to alien life on asteroids.8

harvested chaga
Part of a chaga conk harvested from a yellow birch last year, cut open to reveal the interior.  This brownish-yellow-orange inner material is what’s used for  tinder, tea, and medicine. Photo credit: Jonathan Robins

Another story that often appears even in scholarly literature asserts that Grand Duke of Kyiv Vlodymyr Monomakh (1053-1125 CE) treated lip cancer (or a tumor) with chaga.9 The story pushes the antiquity of chaga’s use as medicine in Eurasia far beyond the earliest ethnographic reporting from the 18th and 19th centuries, but it is likely the result of someone taking an ambiguous medieval account and spinning it into a precise historical fact.10

Historical claims about chaga in the twentieth century stand on firmer ground. Chaga was manufactured and sold as a coffee substitute in Finland in the 1940s, a fact Finnish entrepreneur Tero Isokauppila has made much of in selling his firm FourSigmatic’s “adaptogenic” blends of coffee, chaga, and other fungi.11 Mycologists Tuomo Niemelä and Heikki Kotiranta argued that this was a substitution motivated by scarcity rather than health benefits: “There are no records of true medicinal use in Finland,” they wrote (though ethnographic evidence suggests that Sami peoples in Finland used chaga medicinally in the past).12

Medicinal uses feature more prominently in the history of chaga in the Soviet Union, where researchers developed a number of chaga-based extracts and treatment regimens.13 Annual harvests of chaga reached several hundred tons in the 1970s. Translations of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s autobiographical novel Cancer Ward (1967) introduced folk ideas about chaga-as-medicine to a worldwide audience, and exports of chaga to Japan and other destinations surged after the collapse of the USSR in 1991.14

Rewriting the chaga story in North America

The Chef Ramsay episode I began with suggests that chaga traditions also have roots in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, a region settled by large numbers of Finnish immigrants. I have yet to see evidence in support of this. Interviews with over 200 first- and second-generation Finnish Americans conducted in the 1970s reveal ample evidence of folk healing with balsam fir pitch, saunas, cupping, and patent medicines, but nothing on medicinal fungi.15 Olga Hyypiö, a second-generation Finnish American, told an interviewer who asked about mushroom collecting: “Oh, no one dared to.”16

Today, dozens of firms and individual foragers are selling chaga harvested in Michigan, part of a trend seen in forest regions across the northern USA and Canada. This is a recent phenomenon, fueled by curiosity from mushroom hobbyists, a booming market for herbal remedies, and startup firms marketing new packaged “superfoods” online.17 It’s no surprise that advocates of herbal medicine use tradition for validation, but the superfood sellers need history too. Sales pitches for these products often emphasize scientific studies that have shown many interesting effects from chemicals extracted from chaga. But so far, these have only been demonstrated in rodent and in vitro experiments. There has yet to be a controlled clinical trial of chaga for treating any human condition, and this limits the claims marketers can make about chaga’s health benefits in many countries.18 This is where the history comes in. Marketers use centuries of tradition to legitimize medicinal claims not yet proven by science.

chaga bars
Balanced Tiger, the maker of this chaga protein bar, invokes tradition alongside science to sell chaga to consumers: “Often referred to as the ‘king of medicinal mushrooms’, Chaga has been used extensively by Traditional Healers in North America, Europe and Asia for centuries. Chaga contains a complex array of bioactive compounds with significant antioxidant and immunity-supporting activities.” Photo credit: Jonathan Robins

The harvesting of chaga knowledge for business is selective and decidedly Eurasian in emphasis. References to Ötzi or Russian traditions provide a context for chaga, but divorced from practice and values. In fact, the only practice of interest is the preparation of tea, powders, and extracts. These offer a plausible delivery system for medicinal chemicals and lend themselves to popular products like drink mixes and energy bars. Other traditional practices including making soaps, crafting ointments, and healing with moxibustion get tossed aside as irrelevant.

Chaga’s role as tinder, though vital in a number of North American and Asian cultures, is treated as a curiosity at best.19 “Even the smallest spark, so fleeting and easily lost, will be held and nurtured if it lands on a cube of shkitagen,” writes Robin Wall Kimmerer, here using a Potawatomi word for I. obliquus as she recounts the practical and spiritual importance of making and transporting fire with slow-smoldering chaga.20 In Kimmerer’s telling, shkitagen, birch, humans, and fire all work together to renew landscapes and sustain life.

The selective use and misuse of history presents chaga
as heritage recovered, rather than appropriated.

Native American accounts play little or no role in most chaga marketing materials, however. Wolfe, the chaga promoter, dismissed Native American traditions as a source of knowledge in his 2012 book.21 I suggest that for white settler-descended chaga foragers and chaga consumers (myself included), the preference for Eurasian stories—whether Ötzi or Monomakh or Solzhenitsyn—feeds a sense of false familiarity or even entitlement to a natural resource that might not be so eagerly commodified if it was instead identified with Native American cultures.22 The selective use and misuse of history presents chaga as heritage recovered, rather than appropriated.

In an instructional video on chaga filmed in the Wiikwemikong First Nation, elder Mark Eshkawkogan observed: “There’s no rules” in today’s foraging business. “But for native people there is, we put tobacco down, we respect the trees.” He lamented that non-native harvesters collect too much; they “don’t leave anything behind” to let the fungus and host tree regrow.23 Unfortunately, it’s a common story when foraging meets capitalism. In the 1990s, for example, demand for wild ramps (Allium tricoccum and related species) in North America led to serious population declines and environmental degradation. Quebec and several US states banned commercial harvesting. Native American views were often excluded from ramp narratives in popular culture, too.24

The end of foraged chaga?

Fungi might be different. Much of the new scholarship on human-fungal relations takes an optimistic tone: fungi are unruly, anti-capitalist, world-making things. Anthropologist Anna Tsing contrasts the mushroom, with most of its living mass hidden underground and little understood by science, with the regimented life capitalism often tries to impose on people and plants.25 As anthropologist Shiho Satsuka argues, humans have to “make intricate connections with nature by closely attuning their senses to other forms of life” when they hunt for fungi. A successful harvest depends on “the contingency and unexpected rhythms of other species that they [humans] cannot fully control”.26 Foraging for chaga is, no doubt, a great way to appreciate forest landscapes, to encounter the seen and unseen worlds of fungi, trees, and other living things.

But unlike mushrooms, chaga can’t hide from market pressures under the ground. It’s stuck in the open, literally bursting out of bright birch bark. The good news is that I. obliquus and its birch hosts are common across North America and Eurasia; we are unlikely to see either on an endangered species list soon (a fate already experienced by the Chinese caterpillar fungus Ophiocordyceps sinensis27). The bad news is that usable chaga takes a long time to grow, and reports of overharvesting and local scarcity are popping up across North America, diminishing access for traditional and commercial users of chaga alike.28 Logging, fire management, and climate change may also be shrinking the space for birch and chaga to regrow.29

But unlike mushrooms, chaga can’t hide from market pressures under the ground. It’s stuck in the open, literally bursting out of bright birch bark.

If demand for chaga continues to grow, this fungus’s story may well follow another historical dynamic common in foraged products: displacement by plantation production.30 Much of the “wild foraged” chaga hawked around the world already comes from production forests (that is, spaces managed for timber and pulpwood) and some is “bycatch” collected from fallen trunks during clear-cutting. With artificial infections of birch with I. obliquus now proven feasible, the window for commodifying foraged chaga may soon close. Plantation chaga will not carry the mystique that foraging a wild thing lends, but until researchers deliver clearer evidence for the medicinal value of chaga, marketers will continue to draw on history (bad or otherwise) to sell their products.


1 “Michigan’s Yooper Cuisine,” Gordon Ramsay’s Uncharted, season 3, episode 9, 25 July 2021.

2 The “Chagaccino” is a trademarked product from ReNude, but a number of other companies have entered the market with mushroom coffee mixes.

3 E.g., https://www.spiritualityhealth.com/blogs/heart-health/2015/07/06/bess-oconnor-chaga-cancer-healer-and-king-all-herbs.

4 Conor Mihell, “The Latest ‘Superfood’? Hideous Mushrooms Called Chaga,” The Walrus, May 2017, https://thewalrus.ca/the-latest-superfood-hideous-mushrooms-called-chaga/.
The first large-scale study of chaga distribution in North America found it in 56% of sampled birch stands in New Hampshire, though studies in other ecoregions may reveal different patterns. Rhys Brydon-Williams, I.A. Munck, and H. Asbjornsen, “Incidence and ecology of the chaga fungus (Inonotus obliquus) in hardwood New England – Acadian forests,” Canadian Journal of Forest Research 51, no.1 (2021), https://cdnsciencepub.com/doi/full/10.1139/cjfr-2020-0144.

5 Ötzi’s pouch contained Piptoporus betulinus and Fomes fomentarius. U. Peintner, R. Pöder, and T. Pümpel, “The Iceman’s Fungi,” Mycological Research 102, no. 10 (1998): 1153–62, https://doi.org/10.1017/S0953756298006546.

6 You can trace the development of the Hippocrates claims by starting here: https://www.herbalreality.com/herbalism/western-herbal-medicine/chaga-mushroom-medicinal-properties. This website cites Konrad A. Szychowski et al., “Inonotus Obliquus – from Folk Medicine to Clinical Use,” Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine 11, no. 4 (August 22, 2020): 293–302, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jtcme.2020.08.003. The trail of citations ultimately leads to D. N. Pegler, “Useful Fungi of the World: Amadou and Chaga,” Mycologist 15, no. 4 (November 1, 2001): 153–54, https://doi.org/10.1016/S0269-915X(01)80004-5 which identifies F. fomentarius in Hippocrates rather than I. obliquus. See also Pilar Pérez Cañizares, “[Hippocrates] Internal Affections, 25,” Galenos 9 (2016): 251–53.

7 E.g., https://www.annandachaga.com/pages/chaga-history.

8 https://thewalrus.ca/the-latest-superfood-hideous-mushrooms-called-chaga/; David Wolfe, Chaga: King of the Medicinal Mushrooms (Berkeley: NAB, 2012), 25.

9 M. Ya. Shashkina, P.N. Shashkin, and A.V. Sergeev, “Medicinal Plants: Chemical and Medicobiological Properties of Chaga (Review),” Pharmaceutical Chemistry Journal 40, no. 10 (2006): 37–44.

10 Historians Mary Conroy, Eve Levin, and Clare Griffin all generously helped me investigate this story, which may have its origins in an encounter between the monk Agapit and Monomakh. Clare Griffin also solicited help on the H-EarlySlavic newsgroup (https://networks.h-net.org/node/3076/discussions/12886719/vladimir-monomakhs-mushrooms), where Gleb Kazakov also pointed to Agapit as a possible origin. Sergei Bogatyrev noted that “sensationalist” stories about Monomakh proliferated beginning in the 16th century. On ethnographic reporting, see Ethel Dunn, “Russian Use of Amanita Muscaria: A Footnote to Wasson’s Soma,” Current Anthropology 14, no. 4 (1973): 488–92; Maret Saar, “Fungi in Khanty Folk Medicine,” Journal of Ethnopharmacology 31, no. 2 (1991): 175–79, https://doi.org/10.1016/0378-8741(91)90003-V.

11 Mayukh Sen, “The Hidden Wartime Origins of Mushroom Coffee,” Food52, 1 February 2017, https://food52.com/blog/18958-the-hidden-wartime-origins-of-mushroom-coffee.

12 Tuomo Niemelä and Heikki Kotiranta, “Polypore Survey of Finland 3. The Genera Coltricia, Inonotopsis, Inonotus and Onnia,” Karstenia 23, no. 1 (1983): 19, https://doi.org/10.29203/ka.1983.219;  Natalia Magnani, “Reconstructing Food Ways: Role of Skolt Sami Cultural Revitalization Programs in Local Plant Use,” Journal of Ethnobiology 36, no. 1 (March 2016): 85–104, https://doi.org/10.2993/0278-0771-36.1.85.  Magnani notes that the medicinal emphasis among Sami chaga users may be the result of more recent ideas circulating on the Internet, connecting with older uses of chaga as a tea substitute.

13 D.A. Reid, “Inonotus Obliquus (Pers. Ex Fr.) Pilat in Britain.” Transactions of the British Mycological Society 67, no. 2 (1976): 329–32; Ethel Dunn, “Russian Use of Amanita Muscaria: A Footnote to Wasson’s Soma,” Current Anthropology 14, no. 4 (1973): 488–92.

14 Elizaveta Mitrofanova, “Cancer of the Birch Tree,” Potash Hill Winter (2014): 12–15, https://potash.emerson.edu/sites/default/files/potash-hill-winter-2014.pdf#page=9; David Pilz, “Chaga and Other Fungal Resources: Assessment of Sustainable Commercial Harvesting in Khabarovsk and Primorsky Krais, Russia,” 2004, https://www.fsl.orst.edu/mycology/PilzPage_files/Pilz2004ChagaReport.pdf

15 Finnish Folklore and Social Change in the Great Lakes Mining Region Oral History Project 1972-1978, Suomi College (Finlandia University) https://web.archive.org/web/20160318162715/http://www.finlandia.edu/finnamericanoralhistories. On immigrant sauna culture, see https://www.jstor.org/stable/1498215; on cupping, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/7178935/.

16 Interview with Olga Hyypiö, https://web.archive.org/web/20150925132650/http:/www.finlandia.edu/finnamericanoralhistories/tx/ffsc-082.pdf. She did note that her father, from a poor region in Karelia, grew up collecting edible mushrooms and guided visitors on picking expeditions, though her mother “would not touch them.”

17 For the hobbyists’ point of view, see Ron Spinosa, “The Chaga Story,” The Mycophile 47, no. 1 (2006), 1-8, https://namyco.org/docs/MycoJanFeb06.pdf.

18 As the authors of one recent review put it, “studies that meet the evidence-based medicine criteria are needed.” Konrad A. Szychowski, Bartosz Skóra, Tadeusz Pomianek, and Jan Gmiński, “Inonotus Obliquus – from Folk Medicine to Clinical Use,” Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine 11, no. 4 (July 1, 2021): 293–302. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jtcme.2020.08.003.

19 On tinder and moxibustion uses in North America and Asia, see Alma R. Hutchens, Indian Herbalogy of North America (Boston: Random House, 1973), 77–78; Leslie M. Johnson Gottesfeld, “Use of Cinder Conk (Inonotus Obliquus) by the Gitksan of Northwestern British Colombia, Canada,” Journal of Ethnobiology 12, no. 1 (1992): 153–56; Nancy J. Turner and Alain Cuerrier, “‘Frog’s Umbrella’ and ‘Ghost’s Face Powder’: The Cultural Roles of Mushrooms and Other Fungi for Canadian Indigenous Peoples,” Botany 100, no. 2 (February 2022): 183–205, https://doi.org/10.1139/cjb-2021-0052; Dunn, “Russian Use of Amanita Muscaria.”

20 Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2013), 364.

21 Wolfe, Chaga, 25.

22 Here I am drawing on Samira Saramo’s argument that feelings of familiarity in a foreign landscape were an important strategy for settlers in “claiming North American space.” “Lakes, Rock, Forest: Placing Finnish Canadian History,” Journal of Finnish Studies 20, no. 2 (2017): 61, 63.

23 Canadian and US laws do restrict chaga harvesting in some places, but I have yet to identify a case of effective enforcement in media coverage.

24 Michelle Baumflek and James Chamberlain, “Ramps Reporting: What 70 Years of Popular Media Tells Us About A Cultural Keystone Species.” Southeastern Geographer 59, no. 1 (2019): 77–96. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26635118.

25 Anna Tsing, “Arts of Inclusion, or How to Love a Mushroom,” Manoa 22, no. 2 (2010): 192; see also Anna Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World (2015); Lieba Faier and Michael Hathaway (eds), Matsutake Worlds (2021); and Michael Hathaway, What a Mushroom Lives For: Matsutake and the Worlds They Make (2022).

26 Shiho Satsuka, “Rhapsody in the Forest: Wild Mushrooms and the Multispecies Multitude,” in How Nature Works: Rethinking Labor on a Troubled Planet, ed. Sarah Besky and Alex Blanchette (Santa Fe: School for Advanced Research Press, 2019), 193, 208.

27 Wei Y, Zhang L, Wang J, Wang W, Niyati N, Guo Y, Wang X. Chinese caterpillar fungus (Ophiocordyceps sinensis) in China: Current distribution, trading, and futures under climate change and overexploitation. Sci Total Environ. 2021 Feb 10;755(Pt 1):142548. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2020.142548.

28 See Chelsea Laskowski, “More than a Mushroom,” CBC News, 26 January 2019, https://newsinteractives.cbc.ca/longform/chaga-mushroom/; Amir Aziz, “Can Canada Keep its Chaga Boom from Going Bust?”, Asparagus, 28 January 2021, https://www.asparagusmagazine.com/articles/can-canadas-booming-forest-harvest-of-chaga-mushroom-health-food-become-sustainable; Tammy Kuepfer, “As Chaga Keeps Trending, Mycologists Worry About Running Out,” Modern Farmer, 9 June 2023, https://modernfarmer.com/2023/06/as-chaga-keeps-trending-mycologists-worry-about-running-out/.

29 Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass, 366-67.

30 David Pretel, “Hidden Connections: The Global History of Jungle Commodities,” Technology and Culture 64, no. 1 (2023), 202-219, https://doi.org/10.1353/tech.2023.0007.

Note: The content of this series should not be taken as advice for edible or medicinal uses of specific species. We do not advise consuming the species discussed. Incorrect identification of species and incorrect preparations can be toxic and sometimes deadly. Foraging should be done only with adequate education, instruction, and caution. If you are interested in foraging it is highly advised for safety (and to gain experience) that you should take a course with an expert if you would like to learn more.

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Jonathan Robins is a historian of commodities and the environment at Michigan Tech. He is the author of Oil Palm: a Global History (2021) and Cotton and Race across the Atlantic (2016).

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