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Bill Marchel: Find fall mushrooms now

Because of recent rainfall, it appears there will be a good crop of the big hen-of-the-woods and chicken-of-the-woods mushrooms.

A man with a knife cutting a chicken-of-the-woods mushroom off a tree.
Chicken-of-the-woods usually grow on trunks of trees. They are often called “sulfur shelves” because of their orange-yellow color. As the name implies, the mushrooms have a chicken-like taste.
Contributed / Bill Marchel
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BRAINERD — Now is prime time to find tasty hen-of-the-woods and chicken-of-the-woods (sulfur shelves) mushrooms. Because of recent rainfall, it appears there will be a good crop of the big fungi; at least that's what I found while tromping the woods a few days ago.

It’s been nearly two decades since I discovered my first hen-of-the-woods mushroom, and more recently chicken-of-the-woods. When I spotted the first hen-of-the-woods I was surprised. I had read about the big woodland mushrooms, but had never actually gone out looking for them. What I remembered was that they were a mushroom that grew during late summer and early fall.

One cool afternoon late last week while on a mushroom-gathering foray I discovered three “hens” as they are often called, and by chance, a chicken-of-the-woods.

Hen-of-the-woods

Hen-of-the-woods are regarded as one of the most preferred mushrooms. Every one of the big mushrooms I have discovered grew at the base of a bur oak tree. I've found cool days following heavy precipitation are the best times to look for “hens.” Bur oak savannas are prime locations.

A man with a knife cutting a chicken-of-the-woods mushroom off a tree.
Chicken-of-the-woods usually grow on trunks of trees. They are often called “sulfur shelves” because of their orange-yellow color. As the name implies, the mushrooms have a chicken-like taste.
Contributed / Bill Marchel

“Hens” are reasonably easy to identify. To me (and obviously to others) the mushrooms resemble a brown or tan hen chicken sitting on a nest. Thus, the name hen-of-the-woods. Some people call the mushrooms “ram’s heads” because, with some imagination, the fungi do look like a brown wooly sheep’s head. Even though the tan-colored fungi are in some cases well-camouflaged against the forest floor, because of their large size they are relatively easy to find.

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Three hen-of-the-woods mushrooms and a sulfur shelf mushroom.
Appetizing mushroom meals ahead — three hen-of-the-woods and a sulfur shelf ready to be taken home, cleaned and prepared for the table.
Contributed / Bill Marchel

Generally, hens-of-the-woods are oval-shaped. The mushrooms have many overlapping brown or light gray colored spoon-shaped caps. The interior flesh is white, and the bottoms of the caps are covered with tiny pores instead of gills. The caps grow on short stems and each stem originates from one common, heavy stalk. Although some hens-of-the-woods appear to be attached to the lower trunk of a tree, they actually sprout from the trees’ root system.

Chicken-of-the-woods

Because of their bright orange/yellow color, “chickens” are easier to spot than “hens.” But in my experience, they are far less common.

“Chickens” grow on wood and it doesn’t matter if the tree is alive or dead. They usually appear as several overlapping shelves and will often form a cluster of shelves. Each colorful orange shelf is semi-circular shaped, and the yellow undersides feature pores instead of gills, just like the “hens.” I usually find “chickens” growing on oak trees.

On that cool day last week, I used a long knife to harvest one “chicken-of-the-woods'' and three “hens.” Once home I removed the many spoon-shaped petals from the hen’s main stems, and similarly handled the “chicken” shelves.

A plate of mushrooms.
Chicken-of-the-woods mushrooms, top, and hen-of-the-woods, sautéed and lightly seasoned make a wonderful side dish. The versatile mushrooms can be added to soups and salads, or as an added ingredient in almost any recipe.
Contributed / Bill Marchel

Both species of mushrooms can be consumed in a variety of ways. Methods for preparing the tasty mushroom recipes are limited only by your imagination. Utilize them in any recipe in which other mushrooms are suggested. Many recipes can be found on the web. So can identifying photos. I prefer to simply sauté the mushrooms in butter or peanut oil and lightly sprinkle them with steak seasoning.

As with all mushrooms, it is advisable to prepare and taste a small portion first, then wait a day or so to see if you experience a rare allergic reaction.

Small game hunting seasons have begun as of Sept. 1 and I’m looking forward to a wild game dinner featuring a side dish of mushrooms. I’ll toss them into a fry pan and sauté them until the edges are a tad crispy.

What a fantastic way to signal in the fall season.

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Bill Marchel
Bill Marchel

BILL MARCHEL is a wildlife and outdoors photographer and writer whose work appears in many regional and national publications as well as the Brainerd Dispatch. He may be reached at bill@billmarchel.com. You also can visit his website at BillMARCHEL.com.

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