Herbalist Keren Brynes Maclean unearths some of nature’s most potent medicines found under the canopy of Scotland’s native birch
The iconic birch is one of the most common native trees in Scotland. Its silver and gold hues create our Autumnal canvas, while its roots delve deep into the local eco system to support its symbiotic relationship with a variety of edible mushrooms.
The mushrooms that grow on the trunk use the birch wood as a source of nutrition and absorb the betulinic acid abundantly found in the bark. According to modern science, this acid is a potent anti-inflammatory, anti-viral, anti-neoplastic and anti-malarial compound – making the mushroom a prized medicine among foragers.
Long before science unlocked its secrets, our ancient ancestors understood that the mushrooms which grew on birch – otherwise known as Birch Polypore – had important healing properties.
Otzi the iceman, who walked the earth more than 5,000 years ago, carried strips of Birch Polypore fungus on hide thongs around his neck. Perhaps that’s because Birch Polypore is thought to be nature’s first Elastoplast. It’s antiseptic and styptic, helps to stop bleeding and encourages tissue healing.
Taken internally, Birch Polypore has a long history of use as a tonic antiseptic for the immune system and has traditionally been used for treating parasites – the very same parasites discovered in Otzi’s mummified remains.
Birch Polypore is a common sight in birch woods and an easy find for most foragers, but more elusive and the real treasure for the medicinal forager is the Chaga mushroom, which prefers a more northernly climate in the cold, damp, exposed landscapes typical of the Scottish valleys.
This truly is foragers’ gold – even more so than the delightful Chanterelle – because when you get beneath the charcoal-like surface of Chaga, the internal golden conk confirms you have found one of nature’s most potent medicines.
Studies show that Chaga can be highly effective at killing certain cancer lines and that medicinal extracts stimulate the immune system, reduce inflammation and alleviate fatigue. Chaga may even play a role in reducing antibiotic resistance, which is one of the greatest challenges facing modern medicine.
We now understand that bacteria can create a biofilm, a protective slime that keeps them hidden and out of reach of antibiotic medications. Biofilm busters, such as Chaga appears to be, expose the bacteria and increase the effectiveness of antibacterial medications which in turn offers scope to fully resolve infection, rather than leaving bacteria lurking beneath the surface ready to strike again.
Betulinic acid, a triterpenoid compound, is the focus of numerous scientific studies into bacterial resistance and the internet is full of research papers confirming its effectiveness.
This aromatic compound is ingrained into the very essence of Chaga, along with numerous other medicinal compounds, but for this to happen the mushroom needs to grow naturally, on birch, in the right environment.
Plants and fungi respond to their individual environmental experiences and harness and produce chemicals as a direct reaction to what they have been exposed to in their life cycle.
In the case of Chaga it’s a long slow process to grow to a decent size and it takes years of growth in a harsh environment to reach medicinal maturity and immune brilliance.
That’s why only ethically harvested wild Chaga is considered to be the gold standard and that anything else should be considered fool’s gold, with little medicinal value.
Shop wisely and, if you are Chaga hunting in the wild, be 100% sure of your ID. There are no shortcuts when it comes to your health.
Keren Brynes Maclean is a consultant medical herbalist at Health Food and More in Kirkcaldy
NB Never eat anything unless you are 100% sure it’s edible! For help to identify edible and poisonous mushrooms, go to www.wildfooduk.com