Adaptogen Chai

Ashwagandha Root (Withania somnifera)

Ashwagandha Root (Withania somnifera)

Winter is a time for nourishment and replenishment and the holidays, fun though the revelry can be, can also sometimes leave us feeling tired and depleted during a season when rest should be paramount. Enter adaptogens! A special class of herbs perfect for this time of year, adaptogens are known to work on what’s often referred to as the HPA Axis, or Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis, which is a complex and integral communication system between our endocrine and nervous systems. Herbs in this category restore frazzled nervous systems, improve energy, encourage proper hormonal rhythms, improve quality of sleep, and increase our body's resilience to stress. In short, they're veritable life-savers for folks trying to balance the stresses of everyday modern life. Adaptogens are tonic herbs safe for daily use, and they have a cumulative effect in the body- the longer you take them the more strongly you’ll feel their effects. They lend themselves incredibly well to food as medicine practices, and one of my favorite ways to imbibe is in an adaptogen-filled chai.

There are many adaptogens out there, but this recipe features Tulsi and Ashwagandha, two of my favorites that tend to be well-tolerated by most folks (NOTE: a few adaptogens, namely Rhodiola and Ginseng can be too stimulating for some folks and can cause headaches and insomnia at night). Both Tulsi and Ashwagandha are easy to cultivate as annuals here in the Northeast and I grow both in my garden, ensuring a good supply for winter teas and cooking. Both these herbs are not only adaptogenic, but also nervines, meaning they can calm and relax anxiety as its happening-a wonderful added bonus! The classic chai spices in this recipe-called carminatives in herbalism- aid digestion, ease gas and bloating, improve nutrient assimilation, contain antimicrobial essential oils, are enlivening and warming, and add a wonderful flavor. I also love adding medicinal mushrooms to my chai. Medicinal mushrooms contain immune-boosting polysaccharides called beta-glucans that give the immune system a good work-out, so it’s primed and ready when the body encounters true pathogens like viruses and bacteria. They’re an important part of my herbal routine that I would never want to be without! Feel free to make your own additions and subtractions to this recipe to suite you own needs in true kitchen medicine fashion. Read on for the recipe!

adaptogen chai.jpg

Adaptogen Chai

1 tbsp Tulsi (Ocimum sanctum)
1 tbsp Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)
1 tbsp Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor), Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum or G. tsugae), or Birch Polypore (Fomitopsis betulina) Mushroom
1 tbsp Chai spices (I love the pre-made blend by a company called Chai-Wallah or I'll often simply do equal parts ginger, cardamom and cinnamon)
1 can full fat coconut milk (or milk of choice)
3 cups water
Sweeten with raw honey to taste

Simmer it all covered for at least 10-15 min. Strain, and enjoy!

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Maitake & Burdock Immune-Boosting Soup

maitake soup.jpg

Lately, this soup has been saving my life! So much so that I just had to share the recipe. During seasonal transitions, especially our current one from late summer to fall (and the on-coming fall to winter), our immune systems need some extra support. And it seems like just about everyone I know is either navigating through or has already dealt with their first cold of the season, myself included! Twice over the past two weeks I’ve caught a small cold. Both times I made a big pot of this soup, had 2-3 hearty-sized bowls of it in the afternoon and evening, and woke-up the following morning with my cold completely gone. Like magic. Only its not magic, it’s food as medicine at its finest! Soups lend themselves incredibly well to healing spices, nourishing roots, regenerative seaweeds, and immune-modulating mushrooms. Read-on for my recipe for the perfect fall soup to nourish your immune system and tend to your health during this seasonal transition.

Maitake, Burdock & Daikon Soup

1 lb (3-4 cups) Maitake Mushroom/Hen of the Woods* (Grifola frondosa), shredded into bite-sized pieces (*use Shiitake if Maitake aren’t available!)
1 c Burdock Rt (also known as Gobo), chopped
1 1/2 c Daikon Radish, chopped into 1-inch cubes
1 Onion, chopped
3 tbsp fresh Ginger, grated
4 cloves Garlic
3 tbsp Tamari
8 cups water, chicken broth, bone broth, or veggie broth
6 inch strip Kombu or Kelp
1 bunch Scallions
Sea Salt and Black Pepper (to taste)
Lemon (optional)

NOTE: If some of these ingredients are new to you don't worry! They are available at most co-ops, health food stores, and grocery stores with good produce sections. Burdock is also often readily available at many Asian food stores under the name Gobo. Maitake is often available dried and you can use this form of it- simply re-hydrate by soaking in water for about 1/2 hr and then cook it as specified in the directions. And you can also use dried burdock for this recipe, just cook it longer than the directions specify to be sure it's nice and soft when you eat it, and use 1/4 cup dried instead of a full cup of fresh!

maitake soup pot.jpg

Start by sauteing the garlic, onion, ginger, and maitake in olive oil or ghee until soft.  Next add the burdock, daikon, tamari, kombu or kelp, and water and/or broth. Bring to a low simmer and cook about 10 minutes until the daikon and burdock are cooked. Garnish with 2-3 tbsp of chopped scallions. This soup has a rich, earthy flavor and the addition of a squeeze of lemon will brighten it up a bit, if desired, but it's not necessary. For folks who don't like to eat mushrooms, simply simmer the maitake whole in the broth and remove before serving (best to cook it all for longer-30-45 minutes). It doesn't make the broth "mushroomy," just rich and delicious!

Medicinal Use
This soup is building and supportive to your immune system. Turn to it when you feel like you're coming down with something or when you're already sick and need some strong immune support. I also love making it when I'm at the tail-end of a cold or flu and want a strong final boost to my immune system to really get the remnants of that virus or bacteria totally out of my system. It can also be relied on as a powerful preventative during the fall and winter months to keep the immune system ready and primed. Try making it once a week for this use.  Maitake mushroom has a long tradition of use as an immune-stimulating and modulating herb, and has even been shown to have some cancer-fighting effects. Burdock Rt (Arcticum lappa) is another "food as medicine" from herbalism that can be eaten or taken in the tea to help support all the eliminatory pathways in the body, especially the liver, kidneys, and skin. It’s also extremely nourishing, rich in iron, calcium, magnesium, and many trace minerals. Daikon radish is pungent in nature, aiding digestion, and is also extremely rich in vitamin c, providing still more of an immune system boost! Garlic, onions, and ginger add immune-boosting essential oils, anti-bacterial and anti-viral support, and in combination this soup makes a delicious and medicinal brew. Enjoy!

Looking for online herbal learning? Or just want to say “thanks” and help support this blog? In addition to our in-person classes, we also offer online learning through our Patreon Community! Membership starts at just $5/month and there are offerings like monthly online classes, monthly herbal study groups, and more. And if you’ve got enough content in your life it’s also just a great way to say “thanks” if you enjoy the blog!

Mushroom Medicine: Chaga

Author's Notes: Since writing this piece 3 years ago, many herbalists have raised the alarm that Chaga is becoming at-risk and threatened because of the recent trendiness is natural health circles as a panacea. I have seen the effects in the woods here in western Massachusetts.  This mushroom cannot sustain current harvest levels and I no longer advocate its harvest unless it’s harvested from a forest slated to be logged.

Chaga growing on Yellow Birch  (Betula alleghaniensis)

Chaga growing on Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis)

Medicinal mushrooms are so abundant here in the Northeast, and Chaga (Inonotus obliquus) is definitely one of my favorites.  Last weekend we were out on an early spring walk and I was so thrilled to find Chaga so close to home! I didn't harvest it since I have so much, but very much like knowing that it's there and will certainly go sit with it when I can. A wonderful example of bioregional medicine at it's finest, I encourage folks to ethically harvest their own Chaga when they can, as the Chaga found commercially sold from bulk herb companies is often unsustainably wildcrafted.

How to Harvest Sustainably 

Never take all the chaga from the tree- it should barely even look like you were there after you harvest.  Unlike most mushrooms, which are the fruiting body of the mushroom organism, the Chaga that we harvest is actually a mass of mycelium. If we take it all, we kill the mushroom.

Chaga in hand. Note the rusty-orange interior

Chaga in hand. Note the rusty-orange interior

How to Identify It

Chaga is a polypore mushroom most commonly found on Birch (Betula sp) trees here in the Northeast, although it can also be found on Beech (Fagus sp), Hornbeam (Carpinus sp) , Alder (Alnus sp), and Chestnut (Castanea sp). On this particular day I found it growing on Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis).  Identifying Chaga is fairly easy- it looks like a black, almost charred, growth on tree trunks bursting through the bark. Think you have Chaga but not quite sure?  First, be sure you've got a Birch tree or another one of Chaga's host trees, next break off a piece and look for a rusty orange-brown interior.  If it's got that characteristic color inside, it's Chaga!



Chaga close-up

Chaga close-up

The Medicine

Much of what we know of its medicinal use originally comes to use from Russian Folk Medicine, where it is held in high esteem.  It has a long history of use for treating many cancers, especially stomach cancer, and also as a tonic, blood-purifier, pain-reliever, restorative and general remedy for all stomach complaints, including gastritis and ulcers.

Modern use of this mushroom in contemporary herbalism echos these traditional uses, and we use it most often today for its anti-tumor effects.  Research into its pharmacology has confirmed the presence of immune-modulating polysaccharides, as well as powerful anti-oxidants.  Best used as a long-term tonic, herbalists will often use Chaga in formulas to improve and modulate immune function, to increase vitality, and as both a cancer-preventative and fighter.  Chaga really does look like canker growing on the tree, and some folks consider this a Doctrine of Signature pointing to its anti-tumor effects.


Chaga is best prepared as a decoction or double extract. Chaga Chai (the Chaga decocted with chai spices) is also a fairly recently popular way to enjoy it.

To make a decoction:
Simmer some small pieces of Chaga in water for anywhere from 5-20 minutes. 1 tsp Chaga: 1 cup water is a good ratio to use. When the Chaga is fresh, the rusty-orange interior (considered to be the most medicinal part) can be fairly easily grated for immediate or later use. Once it's dried it becomes rock-hard and more creative measures need to me employed to break it up.  When you buy it at an herb shop it will come "cut and sifted"- already broken into small pieces.

Chaga Chai

Ginger- 1-2 tbsp fresh or 1-2 tsp dried
7 Black Peppercorns
5 Clove Buds
15 Cardamom Pods
1 Cinnamon Stick
1 tbsp Chaga mushroom

 Simmer all the ingredients in 2 cups of water for 10 minutes, loosely covered. Then add 1/2 cup of milk (cow, goat, almond, oat, hemp) and gently simmer for another 10 minutes (do not bring milk to a boil if using raw cow milk).  Strain and add a sprinkle of nutmeg pwd and sweeten if desired- Chaga pairs amazingly well with maple syrup.  Enjoy!

Snow cat with Chaga

Snow cat with Chaga

Chaga, the Clinker Fungus: This Mushroom Looks Scary But Can Benefit Health
By Paul Stametes

Medicinal Mushroom: An Exploration of Tradition, Healing, & Culture
By Christopher Hobbs

Indian Herbology of North America
By Alma Hutchens

Looking for online herbal learning? Or just want to say “thanks” and help support this blog? In addition to our in-person classes, we also offer online learning through our Patreon Community! Membership starts at just $5/month and there are offerings like monthly online classes, monthly herbal study groups, and more. And if you’ve got enough content in your life it’s also just a great way to say “thanks” if you enjoy the blog!