This week's wild edible is Maitake aka Hen of the Woods!
Hen of the woods is a top choice mushroom for most fungi hunters. They grow very large, they grow in groups, and are easy to find (if you know what you're looking for). The best part is that this wild edible mushroom has few look-a-likes. The look-a-likes maitake does have are even safe to eat. Other common names for this mushroom are king of mushrooms (due to size), cloud mushroom, ramshead or sheepshead mushroom.
What it looks like.
When most people think of mushrooms they think of they typical "toadstool" type of mushroom. Hen of the woods is the complete opposite. It's actually made up of several "spoon" shaped caps instead of one large one. It also has no gills. The underside of its caps are smooth.
Hen of the woods grows into more of a rounded oval shape. This beasty little mushrooms usually grow to about the size of a dinner plate, but can get much larger. Average weight is about 4-10lbs, but there are records of them reaching 40 and even 50lbs! If you live on the east coast then hens are likely the largest mushrooms in your area.
Colors of hens (hen of the woods) can range from white, to brown, to tan, and even gray. Typically they are a brown or tan color with a white "creamy" colored center. Avoid hens that are black or have fuzz or mold growing on them as they are dead and/or rotten.
Luckily there are only two other mushrooms that look like hens. Both of the look alike are edible and safe to eat (though not nearly as tasty). Since there are no harmful look-a-likes for hen of the woods, it has been awarded the title of being one of the safest wild mushrooms to eat.
The mushrooms that do resemble hen are "Berkeley's Polypore" and "Black-staining Polypore". The Berkeley polypore has a similar shape, but have "caps" that are much larger, flatter, and wider than hens small and feathery looking caps. The black-staining polypore looks very similar to hen of the woods but there is an easy trick to identify it. Simply pinch or break off a piece of it. It will start turning black and look bruised.
When and where to find it.
Hens grow more towards the north-eastern parts of the US, but have been found as far west as Idaho. They are a fall or autumn mushroom and usually show up around October, but many people find them as early as August and up to November.
The best time to look for them is a day or two after a heavy rainfall. They can also be found during unseasonably cool weather that follows a substantial rainfall. To give an example, I found the hens in these pictures during a day hike in early May. The weather was about 15-20 degrees cooler than average for that time of the year due to heavy rains the past week.
Hen of the woods are easy to find if you know what you are looking for. If you don't, you will walk right past them time and time again. They are fairly well camouflaged with the forest floor, especially in the fall with all the leaf litter. They always grow at the base of deciduous trees (trees that lose their leaves in the fall and winter). Their favorite trees are oaks. Focus your searches along the bases of dead or dying oak trees that have moist or damp soil at their base. Keep in mind they can grow at the base of living oaks and other deciduous trees.
When harvesting this mushroom cut the stem above ground and make a note as to where you found it. The following year there is a good chance the mushroom will return.
Eating hens is simple. You just cut out the white, stiff "stem" and pluck the "spoon" shape tips. Those tips are the parts you're after. While it is technically safe to eat raw, its best to wash and cook them thoroughly. Many mushrooms can pick up microorganisms and bacteria from their environments that could be harmful if eaten raw.
Unlike other mushrooms, maitake has a delicate "feathery" texture. Most people who don't like mushrooms still find it to be quite enjoyable.
Most people simply saute' them in butter or olive oil and season and pair them with other main courses or use them in recipes. They also store very well in the freezer with no blanching or parboiling needed. Just toss in a freezer bag and squeeze the excess air out.
Historically, maitake (or hen of the woods) is thought to have some medicinal benefits. Those benefits include: treating cancer, fatique, improving the immune system, help with high cholesterol and high blood pressure, treating diabetes, helping with obesity, and is even being tested to treat hypertension and HIV.
**Warnings, Disclaimers, and Precautions**
Please be sure to read ALL of this section!!
**Don't eat maitake that is black or growing mold.
**Mushrooms can be very dangerous. Unless you are 100% sure what it is, don't eat it.
**Always wash mushrooms and other wild edibles before cooking or eating.
**When identifying plants you are unfamiliar with, please use as multiple references, as well as help from experts when available. Unless you are 110% sure what a plant is, it is best to avoid it completely.
**If you plan on using any plants for medicinal uses, consult a healthcare professional, as well as botanist familiar in the field of wild plants. And as always, use as many references and expert opinions as possible when identifying a plant.
**Be sure to avoid any plants growing near roads, around chemicals, other poisonous plants, or polluted/contaminated water.
**As always, be sure to use the Universal Edibility Test to ensure the plant is the correct plant and to help identify any unknown allergies you may have.