Okay, so this week I’m going to talk about what has become one of my favorite finds in the woods. Once you know what you’re looking for, you’ll see them from quite a distance, and if you’re like me you’ll get a big smile on your face when you do!
At least two varieties occur in my area:
Laetiporus cincinnatus which usually grows at or near the roots of Live Oaks and causes butt or root rot.
Laetiporus gilbertsonii var. pallidus is said to be pale pinkish orange to nearly white and is considered common on dead oaks in the Gulf states. They typically grow higher on the tree in the form of overlapping shelves or brackets. These mushrooms also cause a brown rot. When I’ve found them, I’m pretty sure they have been on dead or dying Live Oaks. Dead oaks? For what it is worth I have seen what I believe to be examples of each within a mile or two of one another near my home in Northeast Florida.
The common name for this group of mushrooms is “Chicken of the Woods” and as mentioned above they seem to grow primarily on Live Oaks in Florida. Our Florida varieties of Chicken of the Woods can go from light yellow, to a much deeper yellow with hints of orange. The inside of the mushroom is white and has a stringy texture like chicken breast when cooked. I know people say lots of things taste like chicken, but seriously… these taste like chicken! I think Chicken of the Woods could make the most convincing vegetarian chicken tacos one could hope for. Unfortunately, mass production would be an issue, so I wouldn’t go out anytime soon looking for “COW” taco specials at your local eatery. Of course, if you are a forager and your local fast food place is a park, forest or property that allows collection, while holding the right trees, then get you some!
The inner part of the mushroom closest to the tree can become tough or dry in age with a brittle, mealy texture. The outer edge of the mushroom is where the good stuff is found, so if you find them focus your efforts there! Of course, how much you can harvest from that outer edge depends on the size of the whole specimen, and they can get big. Many pounds of big. You’ll feel the difference between the inner portion of the mushroom and the outer edge when you find one for yourself. If you take only the soft outer edge with a sharp knife, you may be able to come back later for seconds if the conditions remain conducive for growth. If you don’t frequent an area often and you see one I vote for taking it if you are allowed, because if you don’t get it something else probably will. I can say with great confidence that you aren’t the only one in the woods that is looking to capitalize on this delicious resource. The mushrooms will become infested with maggots and/or beetles when the weather conditions are poor for mushroom growth, and I sometimes find these mushrooms with the outer two or three inches of the edges eaten away by squirrels when they are fresh. Squirrels giving us lessons in sustainability? Maybe. I don’t mind sharing with the squirrels, but I hate seeing great food go entirely to the bugs!
David Arora states in Mushrooms Demystified that the Chicken of the Wood mushroom is one of the “foolproof four” – an unmistakable mushroom. I have his book and use it for reference, but I don’t know if I’d go that far because there are multiple varieties of chicken, and anything can happen. Then again, I don’t have my own book nor his years on knowledge about mushrooms, so… These are quite distinctive mushrooms so once you have identified them correctly once, you’ll probably be good to go.
According to Kuo on mushroomsexpert.com the group of mushrooms known as Chicken of the Woods are now known to contain at least five different varieties which can act as parasites on living trees or saprobes feeding on decomposing trees. Like bounty hunters in the old west, they’ll take them dead or alive. These mushrooms produce various forms of brown rot, and if you see it on your trees there is not much you can do but monitor the tree for safety hazards. I think you should assume that eventually large branches or possibly the whole tree will become unstable. Your own environmental situation will have to be considered when assessing safety concerns. If you decide that you can allow your tree to die a natural death, enjoy your harvests to come!
There are also northern varieties of Chicken of the Woods that look a bit different from our Florida varieties and I have zero personal experience with them, so I can’t really offer much on those. If you live in the Northeast I have seen it mentioned that you should be wary of Chicken mushrooms growing on conifers. If you live up there, I recommend doing research on that variety so that you recognize it when you see it.
Be safe and as with any edible wild plant or mushroom, eat only a small amount the first time you try. Only try mushrooms or other wild edibles you have researched and feel 100% confident on ID of, and always be sure that you have your specimen identified by an expert before you try it yourself. Even better if you can see them eat it themselves and live to tell you how it was! Occasionally people do show sensitivity to southern varieties of Chicken of the Woods. If you aren’t sensitive, you’re in for a treat! If you live in my area, and see what looks like Chicken of the Woods on your trees, I am happy to check it out for you!
Enjoy your hunt for Chicken of the Woods!
Arora D. 1986. Mushrooms Demystified: A Comprehensive Guide to the Fleshy Fungi (2nd edition). Berkeley: Ten Speed Press. ISBN 0-89815-169-4.
Kuo, M. (2017, November). The genus Laetiporus. Retrieved from the MushroomExpert.Com Web site: http://www.mushroomexpert.com/laetiporus.htm