(2009) Fall's prize of the forest....
Hen of the Woods (Grifola frondosa)
The Hen of the Woods is the prize of the forest in the fall. Hens can be enormous mushrooms. The largest I have seen photographed weighed in at over 80 lbs. Generally, however, hens found by mushroom hunters will average around three pounds. Two of our members, the Morrisons, found a thoroughly edible hen of 36 lbs. last year. Allegedly, in Eastern Pennsylvania this mushroom is sought as avidly and by as many hunters as the morel is sought in Michigan in May. To the Japanese this is the Maitake - the dance mushroom because one spontaneously dances for joy when one is found. Grifola frondosa is called the hen of the woods because the round mushroom resembles a brooding hen sitting on her eggs with her feathers ruffled.
Hens have a central stalk growing at the base of red and black oak trees or stumps which branches into many leafy fan-shaped lobes from three-quarters to three inches wide and from 1/8 to ¼ inch thick at the ends. The overall mushroom ranges from 4 inches to two feet wide and from 3 to 14 inches high with the exception of giants which exceed the maximum dimensions given here. The smooth upper surface of the fans ranges from a brown to a gray color with darker semi-circles. The undersurface of the fans is white to yellowish white with small shallow pores that open further as the mushroom ages. The flesh is white and somewhat fibrous. When young the entire mushroom is edible; as it ages the stalk and then even the fans become more and more fibrous. Hens are found in September and October in Michigan.
Hen of the Woods is a mushroom that is widely regarded as an excellent edible in Europe as well as in Eastern North America. Hens are mildly sweet mushroom with a wild woodsy flavor. They are sufficiently flavorful to be useful in a wide variety of recipes. They can be grilled, marinated or not; stewed; broiled; boiled; deep-fried and sautéed. Hens are very useful in many recipes. I often use hens in oriental style dishes as they can stand up to the spices used in Thai, Indonesian, and Indian recipes without their flavor being buried. For preserving, hens can be dried, sautéed, then frozen, vacuum frozen, pickled and even canned.
There are no dangerous look-alikes of Grifola frondosa. Cauliflower mushrooms (Sparassis species) are vaguely similar but are also excellent edibles. The black-staining polypore (Meripilus giganteous aka Meripilus sumstinei) is similar with larger fans that stain black; edible but not nearly as good as hens. The umbrella polypore (Polyporus umbellatus), at right, is similar though smaller with round caps that have central stalks attached to the main base stalk; umbrella polypores are also excellent edibles when found bug-free.