For today’s Steep History article, we’ll be taking a closer look at one of our most unique herbal teas: chaga. This unique mushroom has gained much attention in recent years for its astonishing antioxidant levels and its various health benefits for digestion, skin, and cellular protection. However, chaga tea’s history with humankind goes back much, much farther. Get your tea bag steeping and have a quick read!
Myths and Mysteries of Chaga
The first thing to notice about chaga is that it hardly looks like a mushroom at all. Found almost exclusively on birch trees, chaga looks more like a chunk of burnt bark. It’s hard to imagine how ancient cultures were able to guess at its hidden health benefits, but however they found it, chaga became a great prize for those who knew its secrets.
Some confusion exists about when chaga first became used for its medicinal properties, and written records haven’t been much help. Rumors that it is mentioned in the Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing, the oldest written text on medicinal herbs, haven’t been verified, and the claim that the legendary Otzi the Iceman had chaga with him are sadly false (he did have birch fungi with him, but it wasn’t chaga). What we do know, however, is that several tribal nations in both Asia and North America have used chaga for countless generations, and some of these tribes are very old indeed.
The name “chaga” comes from the Khanty people, a tribe living in Western Siberia since the 11th century, possibly longer. The Khanty chopped up the chaga and steeped it into a tea, which they drank to counter a wide variety of ailments. They also used the chaga to make a kind of “soap water”, relying on chaga’s cleansing and disinfectant properties. This water was typically used to wash women who gave birth, as well as their newborn infants.
Above: Khanty tribespeople preparing for the reindeer race at the “Day of reindeer herders” celebration in Yamal, Tarko-Sale
Far south of the Khanty, the Ainu tribespeople living in Japan and Russia were also avid fans of this curious mushroom. For the Ainu, chaga tea was the go-to remedy for stomach pain and inflammation. They would also smoke the chaga mushroom during religious ceremonies.
Above: An Ainu village in Hokkaido, Japan, circa 1890-1900
In North America, various Native American tribes had also adopted chaga as a valued remedy. The Woodland Cree called it “Pos kan”, and used it for various things, including as kindling to start fires.
Above: A print illustration of a Native American Cree tribe.
From Legendary to Legitimate
The oldest written records of chaga tea comes from 16th century Russia, describing its uses for ulcers and gastritis. While we can guess that it had been used earlier, how much earlier is impossible to say. Whatever its true origins, chaga remained beloved by those who knew it, but obscure to the rest of the world until the start of the 20th century. When Russian researchers began analyzing chaga and discovered its astonishing properties, chaga tea was transformed from a simple folk remedy to a powerful and valuable natural tonic.
Though we hope to learn more about its history, we are even more excited today to think of chaga tea’s possibilities for the future. Here’s to chaga tea, the fantastic result of a very mysterious mushroom!
Are you a chaga fan? Why do you love it? Share with us in the comments below!