My History with Hen of the Woods: How the Maitake First Bested Me
About this time last year, I thought my foraging season was coming to an end. Still acclimating to the East Coast, I’d missed most of the Chanterelle season, hadn’t found my own hunting grounds, and by the beginning of October, the Chanterelles that had been there were done. Still, while visiting my brother and his fantastic family in New Jersey I’d treated myself to a hike and come away with one, giant Maitake mushroom—AKA a Hen of the Woods.
Known as Hen of the Woods, Sheep’s Head or Maitake, the Grifola frondosa mushroom appears in the fall. Belonging to the polypore group, it grows near the base of trees and stumps, and mostly in the Eastern U.S. It is rarely, if ever, found west of Idaho. The fruiting body—the mushroom mass we see above ground—consists of multiple overlapping caps that grow out of a branched base. Typically gray to dark gray to gray-brown, it’s easily camouflaged among leaf litter and by the bark of the trees (especially oak) it likes to snuggle up against. It’s also a prize edible.
Finding Hen of the Woods
The day I found that first Hen of the Woods it had surprised me. I came upon it unawares. I wasn’t even looking for it. I had hoped maybe to find a Chicken mushroom, but not really a Hen. This one jutted up from the base of an oak. It was huge and I took it home in a plastic bag. I don’t usually put my mushrooms in plastic bags, but for some reason I did this time. I think the mushroom was too large for my foraging bag and so I’d transferred it in the car. At home, I set the Hen in the fridge and hustled about doing other things. A few hours later I pulled it from the fridge, still in the bag, and put it on the table next to me while I did spore prints and took notes on other random mushrooms that I had found on my hike, none of which were edible.
Then, it began to rain. Or, sleet. Or, maybe it the sound of traffic I was hearing somewhere in the distance? But, a peek at the window showed clear skies and I don’t live close to a highway, anyway. Puzzled, I tuned in and listened for the source of the sound—and found it inches from my fingertips. My plastic bag was alive and buzzing. That Hen of the Woods I found was so filled with insects that the bugs could be heard flinging against the plastic. I promptly tied the bag closed and carried it from my table to the trash. I didn’t even have the heart to drive it to a stand of oaks and toss it into the woods, which was definitely my bad.
The Hunt for Hens Returns
This year, I’m determined not to repeat my error. For starters, I’m hoping to source some younger, fresher Maitake, which will hopefully have had less time to have attracted bugs. I’m also planning to be more particular about my search for Hens and am thinking about hunting the same areas I found Chanterelle this summer since both seem to have an affinity for oak.
When I do find them, if I find Hen of the Woods, I also plan to clean them early and cook them into some delicious dishes. Maybe I’ll roast them with olive oil and salt, or give them a Vietnamese crepe treatment one of my favorite mushroom cookbook authors, Becky Selengut, recommends. Whatever I do, though, I promise it’s going to be much more bug-free.