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Hen of the woods (Grifola frondosa) which is also called maitake mushroom is one of the most, if not the most commonly foraged mushrooms in the northeastern United States. Hen of the Woods is native to both the United states and Japan and has traditionally been used as an edible and medicinal mushroom in Japan. I have not found any literature stating specifically that hen of the woods was a common native american food but given all the benefits, my hunch is that it was. Hen of the woods is a mushroom that beginners can learn to identify relatively easily. It also can get very large and it is perennial which means that it reappears in the same spot year after year. Its delicious and an extremely healthy option to add to your diet. To help you remember this mushroom, there are 3 beginner mushrooms that are named after fowl, this is one of them, the other two are chicken of the woods and turkey tail.
Edibility and Culinary Use
Hen of the Woods mushrooms can be cooked in the same way as other popular culinary mushrooms such as shiitake and white button mushrooms. The difference is in the preparation. Mature hen of the woods mushrooms can have a tough base which may need to be discarded if it can’t be easily chewed. The softer outer edges of the hen of the woods can be pulled apart instead of cut to preserve the unique texture of the mushroom. Hen of the woods has a mild mushroom flavor that goes well with almost anything and isn’t overpowering.
Hen of the woods is well known for its many health benefits. Maitake mushroom extract pills and maitake mushroom extract liquid are both commonly used for the many health benefits of Maitake/Hen of the woods. One of the keys to the powerful health benefits that hen of the woods offers is a compound called beta-glucans that can be found in hen of the woods. Beta-glucans is well known in the medical industry as a stimulant to boost the immune system. It is used in the treatment of HIV and other immune suppressing conditions. Hen of the woods also has known cancer fighting properties, likely also due to beta-glucans. There are a host of other claims of health benefits including lowering blood sugar and lowering cholesterol.
The only cautions here are correct identification. There are no notorious poisonous look a likes but its still always important to identify mushrooms to an extremely high degree of certainty if you plan to eat them.
Key ID Features
Hen of the woods commonly grows at the base of oak trees in late summer or early fall. One of the first things to look for when identifying any mushroom is weather it’s a polypore like chicken of the woods and turkey tail or weather it’s a gilled mushroom like shiitake. Hen of the woods(maitake) mushroom is a polypore which means that underneath the mushroom’s cap is a finely porous sponge-like surface and not mushroom gills. Another primary identification characteristic is the bunching growth pattern of the maitake mushroom seen in the photo to the right. Also keep in mind that the color can vary. Most commonly the top of the mushroom caps will be grey or brown but can also be lighter colors including shades of tan or beige. The underside is always white.
One mushroom that may be confused with hen of the woods is black staining polypore. There are some differences in growth pattern and coloration including the black staining coloration of the black staining polypore. The good news is that black staining polypore is also edible but for the sake of improving your familiarity with specific mushroom species it’s always recommended to focus on correct identification.
The reasons why hen of the woods is one of the most commonly foraged mushrooms is clear. It’s perennial, easy to identify and great tasting. It has a long history of being a culinary and medicinal mushroom in Japan and Korea. This is one of the first wild mushrooms I’ve ever tried. If you find a clump of hen of the woods remember to return annually in early fall to harvest.