According to Japanese legend, a group of Buddhist nuns and woodcutters met on a mountain trail where they discovered a large cluster of frilly mushrooms growing from the base of a tree. Dancing in celebration at what they had found, the name "dancing mushroom" or "Maitake" was born. Known to many by its other common name, Hen of the Woods (Grifola frondosa) continues to delight mushroom enthusiasts, foragers, and chefs worldwide with its host of culinary and medicinal benefits. In this article, we will give tips on how to identify, forage, cultivate, and cook this popular polypore, and hope you come away with some ideas for incorporating Hen of the Woods into your kitchen or backyard this season and beyond.
Description & Ecology
Hen of the Woods or “hen” appears as a circular cluster of interlocking, fan-shaped caps with frilled edges that are variously tan-brown to olive above and pale below with cream-colored flesh. While the entire cluster can reach 40 inches across, they are often hard to see because their color can blend in with fallen leaves. As polypores, their spores (which appear white in spore prints) are produced not from gills but from pores running along the underside of their fruiting body.
Growing on the ground from the base of mature hardwood trees, stumps, and submerged roots (typically oaks), hens are perennial, and are usually found from early September to late November in the same place year after year. When fully grown, single clusters can weigh up to 30 lbs or more and multiple clusters can often be found growing around a single tree. While this species has a rich culinary and medicinal history in Japan and China, it can be found growing across temperate regions from North America and Europe to Asia.
Most fungi take part in the healthy functioning of ecosystems by breaking down dead and decaying organic matter and recycling those nutrients back into the soil. Most mycologists consider Hen of the Woods a saprophyte, decaying dead and dying tree roots weakened by other causes. Upon entry through a wound, Hen of the Woods attacks and decays the roots and lower trunk of mature deciduous trees (typically oaks), slowly infecting and eventually killing their hardwood hosts. Given their unique appearance and fruiting location, few other North American mushroom species are mistaken for Hen of the Woods. Some lookalikes include Berkeley’s Polypore (Bondarzewia berkeleyi) which has thicker flesh and is cream-colored throughout, Black-staining Polypore (Meripilus sumstinei) which blackens when bruised or handled, and Umbrella Polypore (Polyporus umbellatus), which, while a choice edible and rarer than hen, has funnel-shaped caps. Less-often confused for hen is the cauliflower mushroom (Sparassis spathulata) which also grows at ground level but is paler and more delicate looking, and prefers conifer trees.
Foraging, Cleaning & Storage
While Hen of the Woods has few lookalikes which all tend to be non-toxic, we highly recommend consulting a human expert or respected field guide prior to and during your foraging experiences. Here are a few trusted resources to help you in your identification journey: Edible and Medicinal Mushrooms of New England by David L. Spahr, Mushrooms: How to Identify and Gather Wild Mushrooms and Other Fungi by DK Books, Mushrooms Demystified by David Aurora, and the National Audubon Society Field Guide to Mushrooms.
Hen of the Woods | Photo courtesy of Tyler Gordon
As with so many edible fungi, a successful hunt for Hen of the Woods involves patience and attention to detail. Its variegated, earth-toned color pattern and frilly texture lend it to being easily overlooked. Concentrate your search within older oak and maple-dominated woodlands with fallen trees and stumps, along streams and creeks, parklands or the edges of old fields. While hen is common on oaks, it will also grow on elms, maples, blackgum, and beech trees. Avoid chemically-treated areas such as golf courses. Different individual trees yield the mushroom at various times during the season, so keep looking from late August through November, as they can grow in cold weather and after heavy rainfall. Once you find a single hen, check around the base of other trees in the vicinity for more as they often congregate around single trees and have the ability to infect whole sections, or groves, of a forest.
When you have found your prize, inspect it closely. Fresh individuals should be tender to the touch. Leave older, tougher, decaying specimens in place to release their spores and less developed ones to continue growing. They grow moderately fast, so go back in 3-4 days if they're too small to harvest. Back home, separate the hen into clusters and cut or wipe away any dirty portions with a damp paper towel, keeping in mind that the flesh of the mushroom is white. Don’t be surprised to find debris lodged inside–hen tends to absorb twigs, leaves and bark bits as it matures and often shelters small creatures like pill bugs, salamanders, and spiders.
Clean mushrooms can be stored in a plastic bag with a dry paper towel in the fridge for up to a week or frozen as is and stored in the freezer for up to 6 months. Alternatively, Hen of the Woods can be dried for long-term storage and ground into powder for capsules or tea or rehydrated for use in cooking.
Where to Find Hen of the Woods (Maitake) in Maine
How to Grow Hen of the Woods (Maitake) Outdoors
Hen of the Woods are great for enthusiastic mushroom growers who have had success growing less difficult species outdoors like Shiitake or Oyster and want to level up. Because it is not a strong competitor, meaning it is easily overtaken by rival fungi in the cultivation process, it has a higher success rate through a cultivation strategy that includes incubation and colonization on pre-sterilized logs in filter patch bags before partial burial outside in the ground. To increase your chances of success, we offer the following step-by-step guide for cultivating Hen of the Woods on oak logs using an outdoor log kits, plug spawn, sawdust spawn:
1. Place a one foot log segment of approximately 8’’ in diameter in a filter patch bag. Place upright into your hot water bath and weigh down if necessary. You can also seal the top by wrapping around a piece of wire and twisting to tighten. This can be helpful in ensuring water does not enter your bag. Maintain a low boil for one hour. Let your log cool completely.
2. Add one generous cup of sawdust spawn into your filter patch bag. One 5lb bag of sawdust spawn should reliably inoculate 8-12 segments.
3. Seal the top of your filter patch bag. This can be achieved by sandwiching the top of your bag between layers of parchment paper or aluminum foil and ironing on a low setting. Let cool before peeling away parchment or foil, double fold and repeat for a more reliable seal. Alternatively the top can be closed with a piece of wire as outlined in step one or sealed with non porous tape such as packing tape.
4. Work the sawdust spawn within the sealed bag so that the majority of it is located on the top and bottom of your log segment in contact with the cut ends.
5. Allow to colonize for at least two months until mycelium is present on much of the log segment. Remove from the bag and bury in a shaded spot vertically under 1-2’’ of soil. Mark your location and begin to check the site after one year when fruiting conditions are favorable.
Alternatively, log segments can be heat treated using a steam sterilizer or a 22 qt or larger pressure cooker. Be sure to read the manual and familiarize yourself with the safe operation of your pressure cooker prior to use.
How to Grow Hen of the Woods (Maitake) Indoors
Growing Hen of the Woods indoors takes a bit more experience and infrastructure. We recommend using liquid culture and culture plates to make grain spawn, and supplementing sawdust-based sterile substrates for this species. Cultivators like Earth Angel Mushrooms and Spore N Sprout offer visual guides for growing this finicky mushroom indoors in grow bags using supplemented hardwood sawdust. Careful attention must be paid to strain selection and substrate formulation, along with growth parameters such as temperature, humidity, light, and fresh air exchange. Paul Stamets’ Growing Gourmet & Medicinal Mushrooms and the Mushroom Growers' Newsletter’s “Maitake at a Glance” are excellent resources for those interested in growing Hen of the Woods indoors. Have you had success growing this species indoors? Please let us know!
What are the Medicinal Qualities of Hen of the Woods (Maitake)?
Hen of the Woods has been used as a medicine for millennia. In fact, a Chinese herbal medicine scripture dating to between 200 BC and 200 AD lists it as a remedy for spleen and stomach ailments, calming nerves and mind, and for treating hemorrhoids, in addition to use in cancer treatment, remedies for palsy, nerve pain, and arthritis. In our article on mushroom extracts, mycologist Jeff Chilton pointed out that one of the key active compounds in medicinal mushrooms are Beta-glucans, complex sugar molecules widely present in fungi that have been shown to exhibit anti-tumor and immune-boosting properties. Japanese studies on the effect of orally-ingested, dried Maitake (Hen of the Woods) powder on tumor growth in animals showed 86% tumor inhibition, while other animal studies have shown promise in hen’s ability to lower both blood glucose and cholesterol levels. Research into the medicinal benefits of this mushroom is promising but ongoing, so it's a good idea to consult a healthcare professional before incorporating it into your diet, especially if you have any existing medical conditions or if you're currently taking medications. North Spore carries supplements and capsules that contain Hen of the Woods among a number of functional mushrooms with a host of medicinal properties. Regardless of where the science stands at the moment, mushrooms provide a rich and low-calorie source of dietary fiber, can serve as an ethical and sustainable source of protein, and are packed with nutrients important for human health.
How do I Cook Hen of the Woods (Maitake)?
Whether you’re a seasoned chef or just getting started, Hen of the Woods’ succulent and delicate yet meaty texture and rich, earthy flavor will elevate a wide range of dishes while its feathery appearance creates a visual flair. Tear off smaller fronds for use in stew, soup, or spaghetti sauce, bake them for a crispy treat or crunchy topping for a salad, or batter and deep fry for a flavorful and juicy tempura. Add them to pasta dishes, casseroles, egg dishes, and stir fries. Slow cook them in extra-virgin olive oil for a truly fancy Maitake confit. Select the central, meatier portions for searing or roasting into savory steaks or grind it up and simmer with spices for the perfect vegetarian tacos. Foraged hens often provide a lot of mushroom to work with, making it great for a variety of preservation methods including pickling and fermenting, and dehydrated for use in stock, seasoned jerky or a delicious umami-rich powder for soups and sauces. Luckily for those with lots of leftovers, Hen of the Woods is one of the few mushrooms that can be frozen raw without blanching or cooking, giving you plenty of opportunities to use this versatile ingredient in future meals.
Hen of the Woods is a multifaceted fungi that has, through time, offered a wide range of benefits to both human and ecological health. Its culinary versatility allows it to enhance a wide range of dishes, its ecological significance as a decomposer contributes to the health of forest ecosystems, and the advanced level of difficulty in its cultivation challenges the most seasoned mushroom growers. What’s more, its medicinal properties have been recognized for their potential to boost the immune system and possibly even help fight cancer. As we continue to explore the many facets of this remarkable mushroom, it is clear that Hen of the Woods not only tantalizes our taste buds but also contributes to a healthier planet and a brighter future for us all.