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Winter, she is near. The trees have lost their leaves, a shallow frost penetrates the topsoil, and a delightful blanket of snow will soon cover the forests and trails (and driveways). For some, this time of year means human hibernation – hunkering down, evenings with family and friends, having a few warm beverages, and getting hygge in general (the Danish quality of coziness).

While I LOVE winter – cozy things, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, apple cider and of course, Christmas – the busyness, extra financial burden, and stress in general of the holiday season makes this year a tough one. After our first solid summer of mushroom foraging, it’s hard to say if it’s the time of year, lack of sunlight, or mushrooms, that makes this pre-holiday season seem a bit grey. More than likely, it’s a combination of all of the aforementioned.

While this time of year doesn’t bring boletes and chanterelles to fight the blues, there is one type of mushroom that is ideally harvested in this off-season – chaga, inonotus obliquus, clinker polypore, or as we like to say, the king of the woods.

Cast your eyes up from the forest floor and look for black growths on birch trees that look like charred masses (or petrified sasquatch s**t). Despite its adverse appearance, chaga is becoming widely known in the health food world for it’s immune-boosting benefits (but that’s another blog post).

In the fall, after a solid stretch of nights below 5°c or below the birch trees will have gone dormant for the winter and chaga reaches it’s peak in nutrient density. Until the sap starts to run, the chaga hunt is on.

Winter IS the season for harvesting. As the trees lose their leaves you can see much further into the bush (one of the reasons why some game hunters prefer a blanket of snow and a lack of foliage). You can also cover a lot more ground if you’ve got some backcountry skis for exploring.

It’s not the best to harvest chaga in the summer or spring months when the sap is running. In the warm months, chaga has up to 80% water content and some of the nutrients are flushed out of the mushroom. Since chaga is extremely difficult to cultivate and grows very slowly on trees few and far between, it is important if harvesting, to maximize the nutritional output and minimize the amount harvested.

According to Paul Stamets, a mycologist in favour of cultivation over foraging stated “Chaga is rapidly becoming scarce. Its ability to recover, given the onslaught of commercial harvesters, places its availability and recovery in doubt”

While it doesn’t seem to be quite at this dire state in our area at least, there are definitely more signs of harvesters out there on the hunt (and not always following sustainable practices).

There is no standard (yet) for sustainable chaga harvest. Some say never take more than half of the growth, others like Paul (arguably the expert) say don’t harvest at all. We like to err on the side of caution, without completely ruling out this fungus completely. When we are lucky enough to find it – we harvest less than 25% from one growth in areas where it is growing plentifully. Always from large growths (think larger than a grapefruit). This means more time out in the bush, and a lot of tempting chaga passed up. If it is growing out of our reach or the reach of a hatchet, we take it as a sign that this one was not meant for consumption.

Luckily for us, this means more encouragement to get outside when the call to hibernate is strong.