The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, October 6, 2006


Hen of the Woods

Name: Hen of the Woods mushroom is the fruiting body of the fungus Grifola frondosa. The suffix osa on a name indicates fullness or abundance — and this mushroom definitely has an abundance of fronds. It looks like a chunky hen with its feathers fluffed up. The similarly named Chicken of the Woods is an entirely different mushroom, Laetiporus sulphureus. (See Mosquito, Biodiversity Corner, September 2, 2005.)

Another common name for the Hen is Maitake which is Japanese for "dance mushroom." I don't know the rationale for the Japanese name, but I do know that finding a fine specimen can result in exuberant behavior — although generally of a less graceful form than would be thought of as "dance." In older mushroom books the Hen might be listed as Polyporus frondosa.

When and where found: I saw Hens nestled at the base of two separate oak trees along School Street on September 30. Joy Reo found two large Hens on October 1 in Concord and yet another pair on School Street in Carlisle. (More on Joy's find later.) This is a fall-fruiting mushroom that is not seen until September and will continue to be found through October. It is only found at the base of deciduous trees, mostly oak, and can be hard to spot among the fallen leaves. A single tree often has two or three Hens.

The underside of some fronds of the Hen of the Woods mushroom. (Photo by Kay Fairweather)
Distinguishing characteristics: The mushroom is a cluster of smoky brown overlapping fronds. The color varies a lot — some specimens are quite pale, some are brown, and older ones can be quite dark brown. The individual fronds can be anywhere from an inch to three inches across and the whole cluster may be as large as two feet across and a foot tall. The underside of the fronds is white or slightly yellowish and covered with short spore-producing tubes. Mushrooms with tubes like this are called "polypores"; the many pores are the open ends of the tubes. Chicken of the Woods is also a polypore, and like most polypores, both the Hen and the Chicken decompose wood.

Edibility: The reason that some of us might dance when we find a Hen is because it is a good edible — and it's often plentiful enough to fill friends, family and freezer. Since it turns up when the weather is starting to chill, I like to make it into a rich cream of mushroom soup. Steve Brill, in his Wild Vegetarian Cookbook (available in Gleason Library), has over 20 recipes for Hen of the Woods. He favors it as a crab meat substitute. I don't think it tastes like crab, but you can fool the palate with seafood seasonings. Older, tougher Hens are said to be excellent if pickled.

Medicinal value: Maitake, as it is most commonly called when used for medicinal purposes, is said to have anti-tumor properties and the ability to strengthen the immune system. Its value and use is better understood in Chinese and Japanese medicine but there are suppliers of Maitake medicinals in the US. The main active ingredients are polysaccharides of the beta glucan type.

Home for little wanderers: It is very common to find tiny critters like springtails and mites living in mushrooms, and there are beetles which live only in mushrooms. Sometimes an otherwise tasty mushroom with a perfect external appearance is a seething mass of insect larvae on the interior. Joy Reo was startled when cutting up one of her Hens to discover it was sheltering salamanders. She returned them to the wild, relieved that she had not inadvertently made soup with salamander seasoning. They were red-backed salamanders — a fully grown one and another less than an inch long. There were no spotted salamanders — nor sacred stones.

References: David Arora, Mushrooms Demystified; Steve Brill, Wild Vegetarian Cookbook.

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

2006 The Carlisle Mosquito