There are more than 250 types of poisonous mushrooms in the United States alone (not all…
The best way how to identify Hen of the Woods is by knowing its key features, habitat, fruiting time of the year, and also learning the distinguishing features of its lookalikes.
As a popular edible wild mushroom in North America, this fall fungus is highly valuable for both its taste and health benefits.
In this article, we will go over the most important features for identifying Hen of the Woods and why it is the most sought-after functional mushroom worldwide.
- Where and When to Find
- Health Benefits
Identify Hen of the Woods (Grifola frondosa) a.k.a. Maitake Mushroom
Hen-of-the-woods go by several other names: Maitake in Japanese, HuiShuHua in Chinese, Ram’s Head, Sheep’s Head, King of all Mushrooms, and many more.
For centuries, it has been one of the most highly regarded medicinal mushrooms first used in Asian traditional medicine.
1. What does Hen of the Woods Mushroom look like?
It is a polypore mushroom that grows at the base of hardwood trees.
Polypores ('many pores') are a group of fungi that form large fruiting bodies with pores or tubes on the underside. Polypores are also called bracket fungi or shelf fungi and are characterized by their woody, shelf- or bracket-shaped, or occasionally circular fruiting bodies that are called conks.
Hen of the Woods mushroom gets its name from resembling a hen sitting on its nest. In Japan, it is called “Maitake” which translates to “dancing mushroom” because of its semblance to the waving kimono sleeves of dancing women.
It was believed that Japanese commoners would dance for joy upon finding this highly prized mushroom. In ancient Japan, maitake was used as currency and was worth its weight in silver.
The scientific name for Maitake is Grifola frondosa. Grifola means “something intricate or braided” which resembles its appearance; while frondosa, means “covered with leaves” or “leaf-like,” referring to its umbrella-like fruiting bodies.
Some also believe it is named after the griffin—a mythological creature with an eagle’s head and wings and a lion’s body.
1.2. Appearance: stem, cap, underside, pores, spores
This mushroom grows in clusters—from a single-based white fibrous stem from which leaf-like caps/fronds grow.
It has ruffled gray-brown caps with a whitish zone in the middle and sometimes white edges.
The caps have a succulent and fairly firm texture, and the flesh does NOT change color when cut. Not all maitakes look evenly tan; some have darker brown coloration near the edges.
One factor that affects the color of the caps is the amount of sunlight they receive. Exposure to direct sunlight turns the caps darker.
Also, when the caps are wet (from the rain or fog), the brown colors may look even. The leathery texture of the caps retain the moisture making it look shiny or waxy.
The underside is white or cream with tiny holes or pores (no gills since it’s a polypore) that release cream-colored spores as they mature. And it has white spore print.
1.3. Cap and Cluster: size and weight
Each cap width is 2 to 6 inches, while each cluster width can be 4 to 36 inches!
A cluster has an average weight of 5 to 10 pounds but can grow up to 100 pounds!
Larger than usual maitake mushrooms turn a lighter tan brown or grey color as they mature.
2. Where and When to Find Hen of the Woods?
2.1. Geographic location and Habitat
This mushroom can be found growing in the northern temperate forest including northeastern United States, Eastern Canada, Japan, China, and throughout Europe.
Just as its name implies, it is a wood-loving mushroom. Usually, it grows at the base of dead or dying hardwood trees or stumps.
Maitakes camouflage well with the surrounding trees so you need to look very closely when hunting.
Particularly, its favorite hosts are white and red oak and maple trees. But it may also grow on elm, beech, chestnut, and sycamore trees.
People who have been hunting edible wild Maitake mushrooms for years say that they always find clusters within 200 feet of the water source, whether that be freshwater or saltwater.
2.2. Identify Hen of the Woods Growing Season
Hen of the Woods is an early fall mushroom. The fruiting season usually starts from mid-August or September to mid-November and may vary depending on location and conditions.
Experienced maitake hunters say that they usually find this mushroom on the first full moon in September or on the October full moon.
The fruiting body of this maitake takes longer to appear than other mushrooms. It takes around 2 to 3 years for the mycelium to colonize its habitat and produce fruiting bodies.
But once the mycelium has established itself in its habitat, it will fruit every year in the same place.
During its season, clusters may grow all at once or sometimes come out in an interval of two or three weeks.
3. Harvesting Hen of the Woods
3.1. When to Harvest
It is best harvested young and tender, but not too young. Too old Hens tend to be tough and leathery which is not palatable.
You will most likely first notice a developing cluster of the identified Hen of the Woods on its post-brain stage when it’s already the size of a fist.
However, that stage is too early to harvest as there are no defined caps yet. The maitake will still undergo the cauliflower stage and cluster flower stage.
So what you should go after is the mature mushroom stage when the cluster flower already develops into defined caps.
3.2. How to Harvest
You can use a small sharp knife to cut the cluster right at the base, level with the ground.
Don’t worry about cutting off the entire part of the cluster as the mycelium (root-like feature) is embedded in the ground. Surely, the next Maitake season, fruiting bodies will grow in the same place or area.
4. Hen of the Woods Lookalikes
There are hardly any poisonous mushroom lookalikes for the identified Hen of the Woods mushroom. But one lookalike would probably be the Black-staining Polypore (Meripilus sumstinei) which is an edible mushroom.
4.1. Black-Staining Polypore (Meripilus giganteus) a.k.a. “Rooster of the Woods”
Similarly, this mushroom grows in clusters with wavy brownish caps at the base of hardwood trees. Some growers jokingly refer to this lookalike as the “Rooster of the Woods.”
Meripilus giganteus which is a strictly European species is also commonly referred to as the Black-staining Polypore. Blackening polypores have larger caps that have more concentric layers of cream, brown, and dark brown.
Unlike Hens with usually white edges when mature, roosters develop black edges. Also, one notable feature of this lookalike is the cap turns black or gray when cut.
However, staining is not instantaneous. You need to wait for about 10 to 40 minutes to observe the grayish to black coloration of the cap’s flesh.
Black-staining Polypore usually fruits in summer and fall (earlier than maitake) and are abundant in the east of the Rocky Mountains.
4.2. Is Hen of the Woods the same as Chicken of the Woods?
Though they are both edible polypores that sound synonymous, Chicken of the Woods and Hen of the Woods are not the same.
Chicken of the Woods is a mushroom from the Laetiporus genus, while Hen of the Woods is from the genus Grifola.
The simplest way to tell these two mushrooms apart is by color.
Chicken of the woods is easy to identify with its caps that are usually thicker and bright orange to peachy orange in color, and underside pores are orangey or yellowish.
5. What Are The Health Benefits Of Maitake (Grifola frondosa) Mushrooms?
Current research studies suggest that Maitake may help in certain illnesses such as cancer as an adjunctive treatment and it can also lower bad cholesterol. Aside from its curative properties, the Hen of the Woods mushroom is also rich in antioxidants.
Key Takeaways on How to Identify Hen of the Woods:
- Hen of the Woods (Grifola frondosa) a.k.a. Maitake is a fall mushroom abundant in the northeastern states.
- It is a polypore that grows in clusters in hardwood trees, with the notable feature of ruffled grayish-brown caps.
- It’s best to harvest Maitake when it’s young and tender with defined caps.
- Black-staining Polypore (M. sumstinei) is a Maitake lookalike which you can tell apart by cutting a cap mid-way and observing if it turns grayish black within 10-40 minutes.
- Also Chicken of the Woods which has yellow-orange caps is different from Maitake.
Aside from it being an exciting edible wild mushroom to hunt, the Hen of the Woods (Maitake) mushroom is rich in nutrients and has amazing cancer-fighting and cholesterol-lowering properties!
Happy Mushroom Hunting! :)
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