Hen of the Woods Mushrooms: A Complete Guide

Written by Em Casalena
Updated: February 9, 2023
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If you’re a fairly experienced mushroom forager, you probably know all about many of the common mushrooms of your area. The common parasol mushroom and crunchy enoki mushroom are just a couple of examples. But have you ever heard of the delicious and abundant hen of the woods mushroom?

Grifola frondosa, sometimes referred to as hen of the woods or maitake, is a common mushroom that grows in the late summer and autumn at base of hardwoods. They are most frequently found in woodland settings with oak trees. The mushroom is tasty to eat, but once it appears each year, it disappears quickly. That implies that if you want to get it, you must be able to locate and recognize it.

In this guide, we’ll explore everything you need to know about these big, fascinating mushrooms. We’ll break down the hen of the woods mushroom’s classification, key features, where to find them, and how to grow them. These unique mushrooms just might become your new foraging favorite!

Information About Hen of the Woods Mushrooms

Hen of the Woods Mushrooms
ClassificationGrifola frondosa
DescriptionA large edible fungus that grows at the bottoms of oak trees and boasts a gray-brown cluster of fan-like caps.
UsesCulinary, medicinal
How to GrowThese mushrooms are difficult to grow indoors but can be cultivated via “plugs” that can be inserted into logs and covered in cheese wax.
How to ForageLook around the base of oak trees for large patches of this mushroom, which are fairly hard to miss. Autumn is often the best time to forage for these mushrooms.
Key Identifying FeaturesThese mushrooms grow in very large clusters or patches, and are thus easier to forage than mushrooms that tend to grow small and singular.
OriginEastern North America, Southeast Asia, Europe

Hen of the Woods Mushrooms: Classification

Hen of the woods mushrooms are classified as Grifola frondosa. The Grifola genus is a relatively small one with this being by far the most well known species.

It is most commonly known as the maitake mushroom. The popular names for maitake include hen of the woods, ram’s head, and sheep’s head. The most popular common name in both Canada and the United States is hen of the woods. The mushroom is referred to as “laubporling” in Germany, “signorina” in Italy, and maitake and kumotake (also known as cloud mushroom) in Japan.

There may be some confusion between hen of the woods mushroom and chicken of the woods mushroom, but in name only; these two mushrooms are extremely different in appearance, though both are edible.

Maitake mushrooms growing in the wild

Hen of the woods mushrooms (pictured) tend to grow in tight clusters that resemble a roosting hen or a human brain.

©puttography/Shutterstock.com

Hen of the Woods Mushrooms: Key Identifying Features and Appearance

Hen of the woods can be recognized with ease once you have learned the look-alikes like “the black staining polypore”, “berkley’s polypore and “the umbrella polypore”. Maitake has a brownish tint, grows at the bases of trees, especially oak trees. It has soft lobes branching out from the center. It may reach heights of almost a foot and widths of three feet or more, varying in size. The fragrance of hen of the woods is likewise distinctive and strong.

Hen of the woods mushroom specimens can occasionally reach weights of up to 50 pounds but frequently weigh as much as 20 pounds. From a distance, with autumn leaves on the ground, it could be difficult to see due to its bland color.

The clusters of flattened caps that make up the fruit’s body give some people the impression that it looks like a sitting hen. The stem and branch structure resembles the underside of cauliflower when viewed from the bottom up. Each cap can be up to three inches broad, with a white area frequently present in the center and grey to brownish tones throughout. The caps are occasionally narrower and measure roughly a quarter-inch thick. In younger specimens, the pore surface is grey; it becomes more white with age and begins to take on some yellow or brown tones as it nears its peak.

Hen of the Woods Mushrooms: Where Do They Grow?

In regions of Eastern Canada and the United States with a lot of big oak trees, there are many of these delectable mushrooms. Hen of the woods is typically seen on decaying or dead trees or stumps, generally towards the base. They may emerge over the course of a few weeks, but sometimes they grow even quicker. This mushroom grows in temperate woods in the north. It is not unusual to observe it flourishing in the states of the southeast. Northeastern Japan, China, and all of Europe are home to hen of the woods as well.

Hen of the Woods Mushrooms: How They Are Used

Hen of the woods is one of the best edible mushrooms. There is rising evidence that this fungi is very medicinally therapeutic as well as a superb culinary, stimulating the immune system to fight cancer and balancing blood sugar and blood pressure.

This mushroom tastes fantastic roasted, deep-fried, sautéed, and dried. It has a very chewable, crunchy, and delightful texture. Hen of the woods mushrooms may be cut into slices and dehydrated to make chips. Or, once dried, they can be mixed into a powder that you can use in soups and all of your other favorite dishes.

Hen of the Woods Mushrooms: Where They Are Purchased

You can find these mushrooms for sale at higher end grocery stores and some Asian markets. You may also find them in some specialty grocers and international markets for sale in a dried or powdered form. Because they grow abundantly in Eastern North America, you might just have better luck foraging for them instead of buying them in a store.

Maitake mushroom growing in nature

Hen of the woods mushrooms (pictured) are considered parasitic mycelium and tend to grow on the sides of living and dead trees.

©puttography/Shutterstock.com

The Hen of the Woods Mushroom Life Cycle and Behavior

Depending on the environment and location, the autumnal Hen of the Woods mushroom can continue to grow far into November.

As a parasitic mushroom that lives as a network of cells (also known as mycelium) inside living trees as well as dead trees, this species consumes and decomposes wood. The reproductive structure that protrudes from the tree’s base when the mycelium is prepared to reproduce is the mushroom that we see when foraging. The pores on the undersides of the caps create spores, which are then discharged to start new mycelia elsewhere.

How to Grow Hen of the Woods Mushrooms

Buy plugs of hen-of-the-woods mushrooms. The “seed” of your mushrooms, or the point at which your fungi develop, are these long, thin, tubelike structures. These plugs are available for purchase or order from internet merchants, but make sure you use a reputable one.

Obtain a log with a diameter of around six inches. If you want to attempt growing hen-of-the-woods mushrooms at home, an oak log is probably your best option because they naturally occur on oak trees. If you don’t want to cut down a tree for your needs, you may buy logs; search your neighborhood for firewood suppliers to discover one.

As the log is standing on one end, drill holes into its top that are two inches deep. Drill rows of holes six to eight inches apart until the top of the wood is thoroughly dotted with holes.

Using a wooden mallet, drive the hen-of-the-woods plugs into the hole. Make sure the plugs are flush with the log’s top. One plug should be put in each hole. Cheese wax should be placed over each plug. While they start to grow, these baby hen-of-the-woods plugs will be safe thanks to this rigid, protecting material. Each plug may grow into a tasty hen-of-the-woods mushroom with a little luck and tender loving care in 10 to 14 weeks.

Isn’t the hen of the woods mushroom absolutely fascinating? This unique mushroom is easy to find in large clusters, so you’ll be able to make quite a large mushroomy meal with them. Just be sure to cook them quickly, as they go bad fairly fast after harvesting. 

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The photo featured at the top of this post is © Aleksander Bolbot/Shutterstock.com


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About the Author

Em Casalena is a writer at A-Z Animals where their primary focus is on plants, gardening, and sustainability. Em has been writing and researching about plants for nearly a decade and is a proud Southwest Institute of Healing Arts graduate and certified Urban Farming instructor. Em is a resident of Arizona and enjoys learning about eco-conscious living, thrifting at local shops, and caring for their Siamese cat Vladimir.

FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

Are there any poisonous mushrooms that looks like hen of the woods mushrooms?

No. Hen of the woods mushrooms are unique-looking and don’t have any dangerous doppelgangers.

Is there a difference between hen of the woods mushrooms and chicken of the wood mushrooms?

Despite their similar names, these mushrooms are indeed different. Chicken of the woods mushrooms are a pale yellow or orange, while hen of the woods mushrooms have a browner appearance.

Are hen of the woods mushrooms considered rare?

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

Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.

Sources
  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/