Cornell University

Stalking the Hen of the Woods

It was a miserable day for collecting mushrooms: cold, and alternating between a slow soaking rain and an all-out torrential downpour. There was even a bout of frequent lightning strikes which, based on the volume and the timing of the thunder, were a little too close for comfort. Perhaps I was having difficulty spotting mushrooms because of the rain; perhaps I was distracted by a not-unreasonable fear of death by electrocution; or perhaps I was just cold and wet and my heart wasn’t really in it, but I hadn’t found many mushrooms at all that day despite being out for nearly three hours. I was just about to give up and try to find a dry spot to sit out the worst of the rain, when I glimpsed a glorious sight. At the base of a huge oak tree was a massive clump of a beautiful, creamy-brown fungus. It was composed of tier after tier of densely-packed, scallop-shaped caps ranging in size from about 2 to 6 inches. Although I’m far from an expert mycologist, I knew it immediately from mushroom-hunting trips with my grandfather years ago. It was the regal and delectable Hen of the Woods, Grifola frondosa.

Grifola frondosa, the Hen of the WoodsThere seemed to be several somewhat distinct clusters which together were girdling the entire bole of this massive oak tree. I walked heel-toe around the circumference to approximate the size of my find. End to end, this super-colony stretched for nearly 15 feet, which I loosely guessed must translate into at least 100 pounds of mushroom! I cut out a chunk the size of a basketball, wrapped it carefully in wax paper in my pack, and splashed off in the downpour, my mood suddenly transformed from sullen to elated. Later that night my lucky find formed the savory centerpiece of a delicious stir fry for me and several of my friends.

Grifola frondosa is a polypore, so-named because of the many pores that this group bears on the underside of the cap and from which its spores (fungal germ cells) are dispersed. It is weakly parasitic on the roots of its host tree, which is usually oak but can also be other deciduous trees and some conifers. Grifola frondosa is distributed throughout the temperate regions of North America, and is considered one of the choicest edible fungi. However, the edible (visible) portion of the Hen of the Woods, like most mushrooms and polypores, is merely the fruiting body of a much more extensive organism. In fact, much of the fungus resides underground as an extensive network of a fine filamentous vegetative structure called a mycelium. This subterranean mycelium perennially sends up a fruiting body to release spores. The fruiting body can be harvested without harming the mycelium, and consequently, Hen of the Woods can often be found year after year growing in the same location.

Grifola frondosa, up closeThe Latin genus name Grifola is derived from a mythical Greek creature, the griffin, which has the body of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle, an association perhaps made because certain aspects of the fungus resemble either the wings of an eagle or the mane of a lion. Grifola frondosa is also a highly-prized edible in Japan where it is known as Maitake, which translates literally as “dancing mushroom,” a moniker that may refer to the appearance of motion created by the overlapping tiers of wavy caps. This fungus has a firm texture and a delicious savory flavor that I personally find rather unique. It can be prepared a variety of ways, this simplest of which is a sautee in butter or oil. It is frequently prepared for use in stir fry, soups, salads, or simply on its own, but the culinary options are virtually endless.

In addition to its delicious flavor, G. frondosa has also been found to have a variety of potential health benefits. Maitake has been used for centuries in Asian cultures as a traditional herbal medicine, and recently researchers have verified that the fungus does contain a number compounds that can help regulate blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol levels4,6. Perhaps most exciting, a number of recent studies have documented that a unique group of sugar and protein compounds from G. frondosa, known as the Maitake D-fraction, can stimulate the immune system, which may in turn attack and/or suppress malignant cancer cells.5 Research is ongoing to determine if these compounds may be practically useful in cancer treatment.

Beautiful, delicious, and nutritious — G. frondosa has it all. So when the harsh winter’s over and you’re strolling through the woods next mushroom season (even in the midst of a cold downpour!) keep your eyes open for the Hen of the Woods. You’ll be glad you did!

  1. Bessette A E, Bessette A R, Fischer D W, Mushrooms of Northeastern North America. Syracuse University Press, 1997. pp. 385-386, 397.
  2. Lincoff GH, National Audubon Society Field Guide to Mushrooms. Chanticleer Press Inc. 1981. pp. 463, 474, 475.
  3. Wikipedia. Hen of the Woods. Accessed Oct. 2006.
  4. Kubo K, Aoki H, Nanba H (1994) Anti–diabetic activity present in the fruit body of Grifola frondosa. Biol Pharm Bull. 20(7), 781-785.
  5. Nanba H, Kubo K (1997) Effect of Maitake D-fraction on cancer prevention. Ann NY Acad Sci. 833, 204-207.
  6. Kabir Y, Yamaguchi M, Kimura S (1987) Effect of shiitake (Lentinus edodes) and maitake (Grifola frondosa) mushrooms on blood pressure and plasma lipids of spontaneously hypertensive rats. J Nutr Sci Vitaminol. 33(5), 341-346.

Photos, K.T. Hodge

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Most people don't pay much attention to fungi, which include things like mushrooms, molds, yeasts, and mildews. Here at Cornell we think they're pretty fascinating. In fact, even the most disgusting foot diseases and moldy strawberries are dear to our hearts. We'd like to talk to you about fungi, so that like us, you too can tell gross stories at the dinner table. Afterwards, maybe you'll notice some things you would have overlooked before, and we think this could be good for the planet.

Kathie T. Hodge, Editor

Beneath Notice, our book of borescopic mycology.


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