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Hen of the Woods

As a botanist, I don’t know my mushrooms well (fungi are more closely related to animals than they are to plants). But I am working to learn more and am sharing some easily identified, beginner-level species with you over the fall. Today we have Hen of the Woods (aka Maitake, Grifola frondosa).

Photo 1: This lovely cluster of Hen of the Woods (Grifola frondosa) was given to me by a friend from New Brunswick, but this fungus is present here in PEI as well.

I need to start with a couple of confessions. First, I did not find this lovely cluster but was gifted it by an amazing friend (thanks Jessika!). Second, I am incapable of reading the name “Grifola” without hearing it in the yodel from the old Ricola cough drop commercial. If you know it, I expect you will now be cursed with this same affliction; if you don’t, do yourself a favour and do not look it up!

Hen of the Woods is a choice edible polypore (bracket fungus) that forms distinctive and often large clusters at the base of hardwood trees, especially Oak. You don’t have to be a deep woods forager to find this mushroom – it can appear on urban landscape trees as well as in forests. Hens will grow on both living and dead trees, including at the base of cut stumps. (If you’re hunting Hens, don’t ignore those large landscape Oaks that may have been broken by Fiona and later cut off leaving the stump in place).

Hen of the Woods grows in tightly packed groups of overlapping fan-shaped caps that range from cream-coloured to light brown in colour (Photo 1). The undersides are whitish and covered in small pores (‘polypore’ means many pores). The individual parts all connect toward the centre of the cluster in a way that reminds me of cauliflower. There are a few other polypores that superficially resemble Hens, but they aren’t that hard to differentiate, and they are also edible. That said, as a beginner I always confirm my identification with someone more knowledgeable before eating a newly learned mushroom for the first time.

Photo 2: Hen of the Woods pulls apart into strips that look a lot like chicken . This batch is coated in olive oil and ready for roasting.

Although this mushroom pulls apart into pieces that look a bit like cooked chicken (Photo 2), that’s not where it gets its name; its caps are said to resemble feathers, making clusters look like a hen sitting on a nest. To me, raw Hen of the Woods has a funky, unpleasant smell. Once heated, the aroma changes to something much nicer and more appetizing. I tried my Hen both roasted and fried, each way tasting slightly different but very good.

Photo 3: Roasted Hen of the Woods, The thin tails overcook, but you can either cut them off before roasting or - as I did - use them as handles while eating the tops.

This is a mild tasting, firm textured mushroom that I would describe as very un-mushroom-like. Roasted, the thin “tails” at the bottom each section overcooked (Photo 3). While they were too burned to be edible, they made excellent handles to hold each piece while eating the top. You could trim them before cooking or use them in this way. I think roasted Hen of the Woods would be excellent dipped in something along the lines of a garlic aioli and I would use those tails to keep my fingers out of the sauce.

Hen of the Woods is found on PEI. It’s a fungus worth keeping your eye out for in hardwood stands this time of year. A beautiful and tasty part of PEI untamed!

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