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Hens of Forest Mushrooms: The Complete Guide

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If you're a fairly experienced mushroom gatherer, you probably know the many common mushrooms in your area well. Common parasol mushrooms and crunchy enoki mushrooms are just two examples. But have you heard of the delicious and prolific forest mushroom hen?

Grifola frondosa, sometimes called hen of the woods or maitake, is a common mushroom that grows on hardwood bottoms in late summer and fall. They are most commonly found in woodland environments with oak trees. This mushroom is delicious to eat, but appears once a year and disappears quickly. That means you have to be able to locate and identify it if you want it.

In this guide, we'll explore everything you need to know about these fascinating giant mushrooms. We'll break down the classification of forest mushrooms, their main characteristics, where to find them, and how to grow them. These unique mushrooms might just become your new favorite foragers!

Information about Forest Mushroom Hens

Hen with forest mushrooms
Classification Grifola frondosa
describe A large edible fungus that grows at the base of oak trees and has clusters of taupe scalloped caps.
use culinary, medicinal
how to grow These mushrooms are difficult to grow indoors, but can be cultivated through "plugs," which are inserted into logs and covered with cheese wax.
how to forage Look around the roots of oak trees for large patches of this mushroom, it's hard to miss. Fall is usually the best time to gather these mushrooms.
main identifying features These mushrooms grow in very large clusters or clumps, making them easier to forage than mushrooms that tend to grow small and single.
origin Eastern North America, Southeast Asia, Europe

Hen of the Woods Mushrooms: Classification

Hen of the woods mushrooms are classified as Grifola frondosa . The relatively small genus Grifola frondosa is by far the best known species.

It is often called maitake. Popular names for maitake include forest hen, ram's head, and sheep's head. The most popular common name in Canada and the United States is hen of the woods. The mushroom is called "laubporling" in Germany, "signorina" in Italy, and maitake and kumotake (also called cloud mushroom) in Japan.

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There may be some confusion between hen of woods mushrooms and chicken of woods mushrooms, but only in name; both types of mushrooms, while edible, have very different appearances.

Maitake mushroom growing in the wild
Hen mushrooms in the woods (pictured) tend to grow in tight clusters that resemble perching hens or human brains.

© puttography/Shutterstock.com

Hen of the Woods Mushrooms: Key Identifying Characteristics and Appearance

Identifying hens in the woods is easy once you learn about similarities like "black stained polypores," "berkeley polypores," and "umbrella polypores." Maitake mushrooms are brown in color and grow at the base of trees, especially oaks. It has soft lobes that branch out from the center. It may reach nearly a foot in height and three feet or more in width, in varying sizes. The scent of hens in the woods is equally distinctive and strong.

Hen mushroom specimens in the woods can occasionally reach a weight of 50 pounds, but often reach 20 pounds. From a distance, the autumn leaves fall on the ground, the color is faint, and it is difficult to see clearly.

The clusters of flattened caps that make up the fruit's body give some people the impression that it looks like a sitting hen. Seen from the bottom up, the stem and branch structure resembles the underside of a cauliflower. Each cap can be up to three inches wide, often with a white area in the middle, and gray to brown throughout. The lids are sometimes narrower, about a quarter of an inch thick. In younger specimens, the pore surface is gray; with age it becomes whiter and begins to take on some yellow or brown tinge as it approaches its peak.

Hen of the Woods Mushrooms: Where Do They Grow?

This delicious mushroom is found in abundance in areas of eastern Canada and the United States where large oak trees are abundant. Hens of the woods are usually found on decaying or dead trees or stumps, usually towards the bottom. They may appear within a few weeks, but sometimes they grow faster. This mushroom grows in the temperate forests of the north. It's not uncommon for it to thrive in the southeastern states. Northeastern Japan, China, and throughout Europe are also home to wood chickens.

Hen of the Woods Mushrooms: How to Use Them

Forest hen is one of the best edible mushrooms. There is growing evidence that the fungus has great medicinal and culinary value, stimulates the immune system to fight cancer and balances blood sugar and blood pressure.

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This mushroom tastes great grilled, fried, sautéed and sun-dried. It has a very chewy, crunchy and pleasing texture. Hens of forest mushrooms can be sliced and dehydrated to make pieces. Or, once dried, they can be blended into a powder that you can use in soups and all your other favorite dishes.

Hen of the Woods Mushrooms: Where They Come From

You can find these mushrooms in high-end grocery stores and some Asian markets. You can also find them sold in dry or powder form in some specialty grocery stores and international markets. Because they grow in abundance in eastern North America, you may have better luck foraging for them rather than buying them at the store.

Maitake mushrooms growing in nature
Forest mushrooms (pictured) are considered parasitic mycelia that tend to grow on the sides of both living and dead trees.

© puttography/Shutterstock.com

Forest Mushroom Life Cycle and Behavior of the Hen

Depending on circumstances and location, Hen of the Woods mushrooms in the fall can continue to grow until November.

As a parasitic mushroom that lives as a network of cells (also known as mycelium) in living and dead trees, the species consumes and decomposes wood. When the mycelium is ready to reproduce, the reproductive structures that protrude from the roots of the tree are the mushrooms we see when foraging. Stomata on the underside of the cap produce spores, which are then expelled to start new mycelium elsewhere.

How to Grow a Hen of Forest Mushrooms

Buy plugs of hen mushrooms. The "seeds" of mushrooms, or the points of development of fungi, are these elongated, tubular structures. These plugs can be purchased or ordered from Internet merchants, but make sure to use a reputable plug.

Take a log about six inches in diameter. If you want to try growing hen mushrooms at home, oak logs are probably your best bet, since they grow naturally on oak trees. If you don't want to cut down a tree for your needs, you can buy logs; search for firewood suppliers near you to find one.

When the log stands on one end, drill a two-inch-deep hole in the top of it. Drill rows of holes six to eight inches apart until the top of the wood is completely covered with holes.

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Using a mallet, drive the wood plug into the hole. Make sure the plug is flush with the top of the log. One plug should be placed in each hole. Cheese wax should be placed on each stopper. When they start growing, these pullet plugs will be safe thanks to this tough protective material. In 10 to 14 weeks, with a little luck and a little bit of care, each plug can grow into a delicious hen mushroom.

Isn't the Hen of Forest Mushrooms absolutely charming? This unique mushroom is easy to find in large groups, so you can make a big meal out of them. Just be sure to cook them quickly, as they can go bad very quickly after harvesting.

Next:

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featured image

hen mushroom in the woods big
Forest mushrooms can grow very large if left unchecked.

© Aleksander Bolbot/Shutterstock.com


about the author

em casalena


I'm a fan of all things sustainable, from urban farming to not killing houseplants. I love carnivorous plants, native crops, and air-cleaning houseplants. My area of expertise lies in urban farming and conscious living. A proud Southwestern Academy of Therapeutic Arts graduate and certified Urban Agriculture Instructor.

FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)

Are there any poisonous mushrooms that look like wild mushrooms?

No. Hen mushrooms have a unique appearance without any dangerous doppelgangers.

Is there a difference between a wood mushroom hen and a wood mushroom chicken?

Despite their similar names, these mushrooms are really different. Forest mushroom chickens are pale yellow or orange, while forest mushrooms are brown in appearance.

Are hen mushrooms in the woods considered a rarity?

Yes. Native to the northern region of Japan, these mushrooms are very rare indeed.

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source
  1. Michael Kuo, available here: https://www.mushroomexpert.com/grifola_frondosa.html
  2. Gary Emberger, available here: https://www.messiah.edu/Oakes/fungi_on_wood/poroid%20fungi/species%20pages/Grifola%20frondosa.htm
  3. Jian-Yong Wu, Ka-Chai Siu, and Ping Geng, available here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7824844/