Thursday, September 10, 2009

LOOK FOR: Chicken of the Woods

Chicken of the woods is a great mushroom with a great name. The fungus forms overlapping orange fans that look a little like the tailfeathers of a chicken. And if you cook it and eat it (only after careful ID, please!) you may find the texture a lot like chicken, too.

Before the tree leaves start to change, there isn't much orange in the woods. So chicken of the woods (also known as sulfur shelf, or Laetiporus sulphureus, literally "bright-pored sulphur-yellow") can be eye-catching even from quite a distance. There are actually two varieties. One is bright orange on top, with bright sulphur-yellow underneath. It always grows on tree trunks (standing or fallen). The other is a paler orange on top, and nearly white on the underside. It often grows from tree roots. Both have tiny pores on the underside, rather than the gills you see on grocery store mushrooms.

Chicken of the woods is fairly difficult to confuse with other mushroom species once you know what you're looking for. Still, if you want to eat the mushrooms you find, we highly recommend a foray with the Mycological Association of Washington. If you can't make it out with the group, get yourself a couple of ID books to cross-check your identification. And, even once you're sure you've got the right fungus, start out by eating only a little bit and see how it sits with you. For a small percentage of people, chicken of the woods can cause stomach upset.

In the wild: As the name suggests, look in the woods -- although we've seen a few specimens of the root-growing variety coming up in suburban yards, we've found far more of the tree-growing variety in the woods. If you find some, check back again next year in the same spot -- they can come back several years in a row.

In your yard: Although there are companies that sell mushroom kits, we haven't seen this species for sale yet. You'll just have to go for a walk in the woods!

Like the photos in this post? Mouse over for credits; a click takes you to the photographer on Flickr.