Harvesting Chaga Mushrooms: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
To say I've been harvesting Chaga mushrooms for a long time is an understatement.
I have been an avid wild foods forager (you have no choice when trying to feed a family of 15 in those days) since 1960, a mushroom hunter since 1987, and a professional hunter and buying agent for larger mushroom companies on the Pacific northwest coast since 1997. In 2006, when I returned to my home in New Brunswick Canada, I established Fiddlehead Heaven Forest Products. We were the first company in North America to harvest and offer Chaga in its natural form on the web to Canada and the USA and the rest of the world.
As a mushroom buying agent and harvester for some of the largest mushroom companies in the world in some of the very most remote areas of North America, I have seen all the nasty tricks that some of the most unscrupulous people will try to get away with when it comes to selling their mushrooms and other wild harvested products. And this is where the consumer needs a professional, to protect you from some of the people who harvest these products!
Harvesting Chaga Mushrooms: 3 Types of Harvesters
I have a saying that goes like this: I know everything I need to know about a harvester just by looking in the basket of mushrooms or other wild harvested products they bring to me. What they bring will tell me what type of harvester they are.
The Good: This person has done this before and their pride and integrity for quality shows in how clean and perfect their product is.
The Bad: This person has never done this before and requires some training!
The Ugly: This is the worst kind of harvester. This person is experienced and knows how to do it right, but just doesn't care at all about quality, how their product looks, or what they pick. They do it for the money only. Although they would never feed their product to their own family, they would (and do) try to sell it to yours just for the money.
I hate to say this folks, but this is also true for some Chaga harvesters I have come across here and in other parts of North America. And this is where a buyer of wild mushrooms has to be on their toes.
Nasty Tricks that Damage the Trade
Mushroom harvesters are almost always paid by weight. For those "Ugly" harvesters, these are some of the things that are done to add more weight to their mushrooms:
1. Inject the Chaga with water using a large syringe (the water used for this tactic is usually from a pond or swamp on their way out of the bush). Or they might just dip the Chaga or other mushrooms in a creek or pond (this poses a risk of the Chaga becoming contaminated with bad bacteria from standing water).
I had to destroy over 500 lbs. of dried Chaga four years ago after sending samples to a lab for testing. The results came back with the detection of a bacteria called "Aeromonas sobria" which is an aqua born bacteria that comes from dead or standing water such as beaver ponds and swamps. So to protect myself and my customers, I burned everything that I had picked myself and had purchased dry from other harvesters in my area that fall! Even though that cost me thousands of dollars, I knew it had to be done.
It is for this reason now that I will only buy fresh-picked Chaga from other harvesters in my area, so that I can spot this sort of tampering.
If it has been soaked, it will be very dark on the inside and mushy on the outside rather than the fresh golden colour it should be on the inside and rough and dry on the outside. Once dried, the colour returns and looks natural unless the Chaga was harvested on a dead tree.
2. Try to cram rocks or sand into crevices or holes in the Chaga and in other mushrooms such as Morels.
3. Cut the trees down to get the Chaga they cannot reach (unless you own the land, this practice is illegal on private or public lands).
If you purchase Chaga and find the tea made from it too bitter to drink, then this Chaga was harvested from a dead tree. When the tree dies, the Chaga no longer has the ability to disburse the water back into the tree that it takes in from after being rained or snowed on. The mushroom then becomes waterlogged and will start leaching.
The most important thing for us all to remember, is that Chaga is symbiotic to living trees, not dead trees! So dead Tree = dead Chaga!!
Although I have trained many people to harvest wild mushrooms throughout North America since 1997 and some of them are very dedicated to what they do, I personally still check each and every mushroom that is brought to me for signs of tampering or soaking.
Harvesting Chaga Mushrooms: Finding the Good Stuff
Make sure you know and trust the person or company you are buying from. It really is okay to ask the company or harvester for references, including us!
Do not be afraid to ask the person or company you are buying from for such things as, business licenses, FDA registration numbers, and ask for references as well.
Also ask how long they have been in the business of harvesting Chaga, and do they harvest other wild mushrooms?
Ask what they are doing to ensure a sustainable future harvest for Chaga.
Also ask if they have taken a food safety course, or have a Food Safety program in place. Are they using Food Grade tools for harvesting and are they processing in food grade bins and tubs and process and package on food grade surfaces?
All wild harvest products for food purposes deserves all of the food safety precautions to be taken as they do in the commercial production of cultivated food products.
When it comes to finding good mushrooms, looking at the practices of the company and doing your research is your best bet. There are lots of ways for harvesting Chaga mushrooms properly, and sustainably, you just have to know what to look for!