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Chaga's Moment: Alaska Businesses Ride Wave of Health Hype for Birch Fungus

02/16/2015 09:28 am ET | Updated Apr 18, 2015

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Chaga may not look like much -- it's a lumpy, charcoal-colored bulb protruding from birch trees -- but this fungus is trending.

A cottage industry surrounding chaga is growing in Alaska. Numerous health claims are bolstering chaga businesses as demand grows both in and out of state.

It's the newest offering in the Talkeetna-based Kahiltna Birchworks lineup of products.

Owners and self-proclaimed "tree-people" Dulce Ben-East and Michael East, who have made their livelihoods from selling birch syrup, said they often see the fungus as they traverse across their homestead.

They started harvesting it about five years ago on their Southcentral homestead, going out on their snowmachine in search of the fungus. It grows on maybe one in 20 trees, East said, and is easier to spot in the wintertime. Once they find it, they'll take a hammer and chisel and "just kind of pop it off," East said.

Chaga, or Inonotus obliquus, is a common fungus in Alaska, said Gary Laursen, a mycologist and senior research scientist at UAF's Institute of Arctic Biology.

The bracket fungus grows on birches and quaking aspens, establishing itself in the inner wood of the tree and taking in water and nutrients through the trunk.

"It seems to be very happy living there," Laursen said.

Chaga can be found throughout the Northern Hemisphere in boreal forests.

After watching a surge in interest in the fungus, East and Ben-East finally decided to start harvesting it commercially.

They began selling chaga products in July, offering it at the Alaska State Fair and craft shows.

"It really sold," Ben-East said. "People were really fascinated and happy that we had it."