The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, September 2, 2005


Chicken of the Woods

Laetiporus cincinnatus (Photo by Kay Fairweather)
Name: Chicken of the Woods is a large mushroom so-named because it looks and tastes like white chicken meat when cooked. There are at least two species common around here — one is white on the underside and the other is bright yellow. Both are in the genus Laetiporus — pronounced lay-tee-PORE-us. The yellow-pored one is Laetiporus sulphureus, and the white-pored one is Laetiporus cincinnatus - or in some older books Laetiporus sulphureus variety semialbinus. For a long time all Chicken of the Woods mushrooms were lumped in together under the name Polyporus sulphureus, also known as Sulphur Shelf mushrooms or simply Chicken mushrooms. Study of their microscopic features showed that they didn't belong with other Polypores and Laetiporus genus was created for them. Subsequent DNA work showed that there are five or six species within the new genus each of which can be more or less differentiated by color, geographic location, host species, and location on the host. There is an entirely different mushroom called Hen of the Woods — so it's important to know the hens from the chickens.

When and where found: You can find chicken mushrooms from May through November. They are so large and colorful that I often spot them from my car. I found two, both of the white-pored species, on August 10. One was just over the Carlisle border on Proctor Road in Chelmsford and the other was in Carlisle at the base of a standing oak tree on School Street. I harvested half of the School Street specimen and had enough to share with several friends for dinner. In June, I found a small but particularly tasty yellow-pored species growing on a fallen log in the Towle woods.

Edibility: This is a mushroom so vivid in color that is seems to scream of toxicity, but not only is it edible, it is one of the famous "foolproof four" mushrooms described by Clyde Christensen back in 1943. Clyde Christensen, a professor at the University of Minnesota, wanted to teach a somewhat fungi-phobic population that at least a few edible mushrooms are easy to identify and difficult to confuse with something poisonous. (The three others are Morels, Shaggy Manes, and Giant Puffballs — topics for another day.)

Cautions about Edibility: David Arora, in his book "Mushrooms Demystified" says that "nothing is foolproof but the sulfur shelf is definitely intelligence-proof and I trust that no one reading this book is a fool." Some people have an allergic reaction to chicken mushrooms so for the first few times, eat just a small amount. Don't eat it raw under any circumstances — it can cause a severely upset stomach. Specimens from some hosts, such as eucalyptus (not a problem in Carlisle), can cause stomach problems. I have not had any problems with specimens from oak trees. When it gets old and the top starts losing its color, it becomes tough and tasteless.

Laetiporus sulphurus (Photo by Kay Fairweather)

Distinguishing characteristics: The yellow-pored species, L. sulphureus, has fan-shaped shelves up to a foot across, where the top surface is yellow-orange or reddish-orange and the lower surface is bright yellow. The shelves are usually overlapping and can cover several feet along a tree trunk. The white-pored species, L. cincinnatus, also has fan-shaped lobes but they are usually arranged in a large rosette which can be up to 30 inches wide. The upper surface is a salmon color and the lower surface is white. It is found growing at or near the base of trees. It can appear to be growing on the ground but will be attached to the roots of the host tree.

The bad news: Well, first the good news: even if you don't eat wild mushrooms, the chicken mushroom is a visual treat to find. The bad news is that the fungus which produces this mushroom feeds on the heartwood of trees. It digests the cellulose leaving only the lignin, thereby creating a brown rot which makes the tree dry and fragile, so you do not want to see this mushroom on a favorite tree, on timber trees, or on a tree near your house. The mushrooms appear only after the fungus has been in the tree for several years and already caused extensive internal damage.

References: Tom Volk, professor of mycology at U. of Wisconsin, has a web site which includes a section called "mushroom of the month" ( Like Tom, it is informative and often entertaining. Also, Gary Lincoff, National Audubon Society Field Guide to Mushrooms; Integrated Pest Management web site at U. of California ( search on Laetiporus)

Submissions and ideas for the Biodiversity Corner are encouraged on any wildlife in town. Send a note to Kay Fairweather at 392 School Street, Carlisle MA 01741 or to

2005 The Carlisle Mosquito