Entering the Mushrooms class I was a mycophagophobe; I was someone who was afraid to eat mushrooms, especially ones that I had collected. Any wild mushroom was too dangerous for me. It was not until I discovered Laetiporus sulphureus— Chicken of the Woods, that I felt comfortable enough to identify a fungus and then eat it. David Arora remarks in Mushrooms Demystified that this is one of the “foolproof four” — an unmistakable mushroom.
This large, brightly colored fungus is often found in clusters but is occasionally solitary. You may discover this mushroom during the summer and fall but rarely in winter or spring. The top surface of Chicken of the Woods is bright orange which can be either more reddish or yellowish than you see here. It tends to lighten in color near the edges. This mushroom has no gills, instead its bright yellow undersurface is covered with tiny pores. The young Chicken of the Woods is “succulent” and has a mild flavor. Older specimens tend to change color as they develop, as well as become brittle. The young mushrooms have bright yellows and oranges; in age they dull to yellow and then pure white.
A good tree can yield up to 50 pounds, but be wary of older fungi as they toughen and develop a sour flavor! If you have found a specimen worthy of collection, you can harvest the mushrooms and return the next year for another crop. Or cut just the outer edge (about 5 cm of the fungus) and return later in the season for a second helping. Be wary of Chickens growing on conifers (in the Northeast) as they are a different species and can cause poisoning. Chicken of the Woods can make a fine chicken substitute as long as you make sure to fully cook the mushroom.
Chicken of the Woods grows in trees that are either living or decaying. These mushrooms cause a reddish brown heart-rot of wood. If the mushrooms are seen fruiting, you can be sure that the fungus has already attacked the tree. They can destabilize a tree by hollowing out its center–this can be problematic for forest owners. Historically, this fungus was known to damage the wooden ships of the British Naval Fleet.
Editor’s Aside: Recent mycological detective work has revealed differences in what was once considered to be just one species–there are in fact a handful of distinct species of Laetiporus in North America.2 Tom Volk briefly reviewed them back in 2001, but be aware that many field guides haven’t caught up yet with this improved taxonomy. In our area (northeastern North America), Laetiporus huroniensis is morphologically almost identical to Laetiporus sulphureus — the two can best be distinguished by where they grow and what they grow on. The conifer-loving Laetiporus huroniensis of the Great Lakes seems to cause poisoning more often than true L. sulphureus, and may also sometimes interbreed with the latter, making it even more difficult to distinguish one species from another. In western north America, true Laetiporus sulphureus does not occur, but at least two lookalikes do: Laetiporus gilbertsonii (on eucalyptus, and more frequently implicated in poisonings) and Laetiporus conifericola (on conifers). If you are unlucky, or sensitive to whatever unidentified toxin is in these, you may experience vomiting, chills, and perhaps mild hallucinations–I haven’t heard of any deaths. Yet there are many (probably over 90% of you) who eat these species with impunity, so it’s hard to know what to advise, except caution.
Based on the texture, taste and distinctiveness, this easily identifiable group of species can be a good starting place for those who fear the wild mushroom, as I used to do. For those who have found a Chicken of the Woods and would like cook with it, here is a delicious recipe for a Polypore Omelet care of Wild Mushroom Cookery.6
3 Tablespoons butter
1 cup diced Chicken of the Woods
1/4 cup shredded Monterey Jack or cream cheese
2 or 3 shallots, diced
1 Tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
5 or 6 eggs
1/2 cup cream or half and half
Salt and pepper
- Melt the butter in a heavy frying pan over low heat.
- Beat the eggs and cream, add salt and pepper to taste; pour into the pan.
- As the eggs start to cook, sprinkle the Chicken of the Woods, cheese, shallots and parsley over the top.
- Cook for 1 to 2 minutes more until the egg mixture sets.
- Fold the omelet over and remove from the heat; cover and let sit for 1 minute.
- Arora, D. (1986) Mushrooms Demystified: A Comprehensive Guide to the Fleshy Fungi, Ten Speed Press, Berkeley.
- Burdsall, H. H. J., and M. T. Banik. (2001). The genus Laetiporus in North America. Harvard Papers in Botany 6:43-55.
- Kuo, M. (2005, March). Laetiporus sulphureus: The chicken of the woods. Retrieved from MushroomExpert.Com.
- Phillips, R. (2006) Laetiporus sulphureus. Retrieved from the rogersmushrooms.com.
- Volk, T.J. (2001) Laetiporus cincinnatus, the white-pored chicken of the woods.
- Wells, M., M. Rogers, R. Piekenbrook & D. Piekenbrook (1987). Wild Mushroom Cookery. Portland, OR: The Oregon Mycological Society.
Photo by Jeanine Moy.