This is the first post in a series of articles I will dedicate to members of the Laetiporus genus, commonly called chicken of the woods mushrooms. I am not 100% sure why they have this common name, but I strongly suspect it’s because they do indeed taste like chicken! Some are more “chicken-y” than others, but at their best, chicken of the woods is tender and tears apart in delicate strips much like chicken breast and is a delightful culinary mushroom.
The “classic” chicken of the woods, Laetiporus sulfureus, is one of the so-called “foolproof four” edible mushrooms because it is extremely unlikely to be mistaken for a poisonous species, and it is on par with the hedgehog mushroom when it comes to being a suitable wild mushroom for novice foragers. However, I will echo other authors in noting that no mushroom is truly “foolproof,” and also note that some people (although no one I know personally) have allergic reactions to chicken of the woods that makes them rather sour in the tummy or causes swelling/itching (more on this a little later). Furthermore, these mushrooms should be cooked thoroughly before consumption!
If you’re new to mushroom hunting and identification and want some background on other edible mushrooms, I would encourage you to look through some of my past posts, which address easy-to-ID edible mushrooms like chanterelles, black trumpets, and morel mushrooms. But for now, let’s get started on a rundown on the lovely and delicious chicken of the woods mushrooms! Hooray!
Yours in Fungal Fancy,
Chicken of the Woods – Attack of the Giant Orange Mushroom
When I first started wild mushroom hunting, the very existence of the chicken of the woods mushroom was astonishing to me, because I had never actually seen one before, despite spending countless hours in the woods on both coasts and most of the states in between, on account of having a family with a strong streak of wanderlust that I inherited in spades.
I strongly suspect that for whatever reason, anytime I did pass by one of these magnificent and colorful mushrooms, my mind simply refused to acknowledge its existence, because it’s almost impossible I had not actually been in the same place and time with a chicken of the woods before I got bitten by the myco-bug, but nevertheless I have no childhood or young adult recollections of seeing a giant orange shelving fungus. Anyway, once I discovered them, it became somewhat preposterous to consider that I’d never become aware of the existence of something so weird, flashy, and…well…noticeable.
You see, every species of “chicken of the woods,” each of which is a member of the Laetiporus genus, is colorful and they often get quite large, especially when compared to the multitude of miniature mushrooms that populate the forests of North America.
Chicken of the Woods Signature Characteristics
There are several species of “chicken of the woods,” in North America, including Laetiporus sulfureus, Laetiporus cincinnatus, Laetiporus huroniensis, Laetiporus conifericola, Laetiporus gilbertsonii, and possibly others. Like every cluster of wild mushroom species, the various chicken of the woods mushrooms have been scrutinized, reorganized, and studied by fastidious mycological taxonomy splitters who have given us a far more meaningful and nuanced understanding of Laetiporus than in times past.
As such, you may find synonyms and mistaken descriptions in older mushroom identification field guides, particularly for west coast species of chicken of the woods, which are often described as Laetiporus sulfureus in older books. As always, I will qualify that with future research, it is entirely possible that new species Laetiporus mushrooms will emerge from the shadows.
There are a few features that all these chickens of the woods share with one another, making it an ideal species cluster to study if you’re new to mushroom hunting and want to eat fungi that you find in the wild. They also tend to grow rather large, and often can be found in clusters that are several feet across, and their lobed and layered growth pattern is quite distinctive.
Chicken of the woods mushrooms are all brightly colored, and most of them sport bright orange caps with concentric growth zones and somewhat wrinkly flesh that’s smooth or a little felty to the touch. In some species the cap is more pink or peachy in color than orange, but those species usually have orange-y undertones.
Chicken of the woods mushrooms are saprophytic, meaning that they decompose dead and dying wood. They are also parasitic, brown rotting fungi that attack living trees, and they’re a significant forest pathogen. Given their blended saprophytic/parasitic lifestyle, you can find chicken of the woods growing on both living trees and decomposing logs, stumps, and right at the base of its host tree’s trunk. An exception to this is Laetiporus cincinnatus, a delicious chicken of the woods mushroom that occurs in North Carolina. Laetiporus cincinnatus is a tree-butt rotter that will often take up residence on buried root systems, which causes the fungus fruit terrestrially (from the ground).
Laetiporus species are all polypore mushrooms, and the underside of their caps are festooned with tons of tiny holes that deposit spores once the mushroom is mature. This porous surface is lemon-yellow, white, or even occasionally creamy-salmon-colored, depending on the species of chicken of the woods you’ve found. The spore print is white.
The flesh of this group of mushrooms tends to be significantly tougher than your classic “squishy mushroom” (for example, a fragile Amanita, which can be crushed to bits between your fingers), although it’s often quite tender, especially in younger specimens. However, this tenderness doesn’t mean that you can easily crush the flesh; if you squeeze a chicken of the woods it tends to feel a little rubbery and resilient.
Chicken of the woods mushrooms often grow in overlapping shelves or rosettes, depending on their habitat and the constrains of what they’re growing on. For instance, a white chicken of the woods mushroom (Laetiporus cincinnatus) growing on buried wood will often take on a rose-shaped form because it can spread itself out as it pleases and sort of unfurl from the ground, whereas a “classic” orange-and-yellow chicken of the woods (Laetiporus sulfureus) growing high up in a tree will often form shelves and fingers of fungus that hang off the side of its host tree.
North Carolina’s Chicken of the Woods
In my home state of North Carolina, we have two recognized species of chicken of the woods, and one additional Laetiporus mushroom doesn’t much resemble its orange-colored kin. The season for chicken of the woods is July-October, although I have found them both earlier and later in the year from time to time. The earliest I’ve ever seen a chicken of the woods of North Carolina was in late May, after a period of warm rainstorms.
Chicken of the woods mushrooms are great for North Carolina foragers because they yield a lot of edible flesh on average, and their season is lengthy. They share hardwood forest habitats with chanterelle mushrooms, and you’re likely to find them growing on oak (or the remains of oak trees) all around North Carolina.
Laetiporus sulfureus is the “classic” chicken of the woods, and it is bright orange on top with a yellow pore surface underneath. Another common name for this chicken of the woods is “sulfur shelf,” because its pore surface is sulfur-yellow and it often grows in a shelving pattern on trees.
This species grows on hardwoods trees (particularly oak and cherry trees) all around the eastern United States, and it is reasonably common. Some authors note that it occasionally fruits from conifers, but not everyone in the mushroom-nut community is in agreement on this point. I have always found it on oak. Laetiporus sulfureus is considered a choice edible by many, although in older specimens it’s important to harvest only the portions that are soft and tender, which is usually the outer concentric growth zone.
This is the so-called “white” chicken of the woods, and as noted above it often grows on the ground as it parasitizes and decomposes root systems and tree butts. Laetiporus cincinnatus is peachy-orange or reddish-orange on the top and its porous underbelly is white.
Laetiporus cincinnatus is sometimes called Laetiporus sulfureus var. semialbinus, which is an older and parallel name for the species. It is distinct from L. sulfureus, and these two species cannot mate. Laetiporus cincinnatus is my favorite chicken of the woods mushroom because it tends to be tender throughout, and in my experience it has a milder flavor that is more like chicken than Laetiporus sulfureus.
Although it’s not a mushroom we’d readily call “chicken of the woods,” Laetiporus persicinus is a good species to know, because it often shares the same spaces as the edible Laetiporus species. This mushroom looks very like its orange relatives insofar as it grows as a lobed, overlapping, and irregular polypore, but its cap surface is brown and the porous understory is off-white, yellowish, and turns dingy brown by the time the mushroom is mature. Also, this mushroom stains brown radically when it’s bruised or cut. Although not thought to be edible by mushroom hunters, Laetiporus persicinus is quite common in North Carolina and other eastern states and often grows to impressive size.
Other Chicken of the Woods Mushrooms
Looking further afield than North Carolina, there are other species of Laetiporus mushrooms that are considered edible and good. For a long time, orange-and-yellow chicken of the woods mushrooms in the western United States were thought to be Laetiporus sulfureus, but mycologists discovered that these species were distinct, based on both biological analysis (mating studies) and genetic research.
This west coast chicken of the woods can get enormous, and as its Latin name implies, Laetiporus conifericola often grows on coniferous trees, especially fir. This species is quite common in the Pacific Northwest, and although it reportedly causes gastric upset in some people, it’s generally considered edible and delicious. Some people attribute the stomach aches caused by this mushroom to the fact that it grows on conifers, but (at least from my research) it’s not entirely clear why this particular Laetiporus disagrees with some people.
One of the interesting things about this species is how wet the interior of the mushroom can be; sometimes, when harvesting this chicken of the woods, it will bleed out a ton of water when you slice it. Although this species can get absolutely humongous, it often becomes quite tough and leathery on its inner layers of flesh, and so in general people only eat the outer margins of this mushroom. It has a great chicken-y flavor, although like all chicken of the woods mushrooms it must be cooked quite thoroughly.
Laetiporus gilbertsonii var. gilbertsonii is another United States chicken of the woods mushroom that does very well in the cool, reasonably wet climate of the Bay Area and north coast of California. Like its cousin Laetiporus conifericola, it appears to be limited to western states, where it takes up residence on eucalyptus trees.
Among west coast mycophiles, it’s generally believed that chicken of the woods that grows on eucalyptus tend to cause more stomach upsets than other chicken of the woods mushrooms. Whether or not this is a function of the species Laetiporus gilbertsonii var. gilbertsonii itself being to blame for a higher rate of allergic reactions or if it’s actually because some chemical compounds from the eucalyptus sneaking into these mushrooms, I do not know. Nonetheless, a lot of people eschew eating chicken of the woods that is found on eucalyptus.
There is a second variety of Laetiporus gilbertsonii, called Laetiporus gilbertsonii var. pallidus, and it occurs in southern states near the Gulf of Mexico, particularly on live oak trees. Laetiporus gilbertsonii var. pallidus has a paler, somewhat salmon-colored pore surface, whereas Laetiporus gilbertsonii var. gilbertsonii has the classic lemon-yellow pore surface.
In 2010, I spent some time in central Texas and found several chicken of the woods mushrooms that I am fairly sure were Laetiporus gilbertsonii var. pallidus. I enjoyed eating them to be sure, but I did not like the texture nearly as much as its eastern U.S. and west coast cousins; it was sort of dried out and did not have much distinctive chicken-like flavor. However, that could well be a function of the weather conditions at the time; I found them in early summer near Austin, and even though we’d had a good bit of rain, it was still blazing hot all the time, so it’s entirely possible these mushrooms weren’t very tasty because they’d been fried (and dried) during their growing cycle.
I have never found Laetiporus huroniensis so I cannot speak much to its flavor or texture. This is a distinct chicken of the woods that grows in the Great Lakes region (and perhaps beyond), and it favors conifers, particularly hemlock. Like other chickens of the woods it has a yellow pore surface. Although it is considered a biologically distinct species, it is able to mate with Laetiporus conifericola, and in studies of the mating capabilities of different chicken of the woods mushrooms, it successfully paired with Laetiporus conifericola about 15% of the time.
Chicken of the Woods Allergies
Some people experience gastric upset from chicken of the woods, and others experience itchiness and swelling of the lips, much like a bee sting or other food allergy. Also, it appears that some people have negative reactions to chicken of the woods when it is consumed with alcohol. By all accounts, allergic reactions are rare, and when they do happen, it’s certainly not a case of full on “OMG MUSHROOM POISONING GET ME TO THE HOSPITAL!!!”
As with any wild mushroom, it’s best to try a small amount of chicken of the woods before you wolf down a whole pile of it for dinner, just in case you’re one of those unlucky few whose bodies react poorly to them.
Also, it’s very important to cook these mushrooms, as consuming chicken of the woods raw can make for a very bad, crampy and queasy day ahead. Nonetheless, every field guide I’ve ever seen lists chicken of the woods as “edible and choice…but just be aware of this one thing that might make you unhappy, but not dead.”
Chicken of the Woods Lookalikes
As luck would have it, there are astonishingly few lookalikes for chicken of the woods, which makes them a prime candidate for mushroom hunting. In North Carolina, however, there are two particular polypores that look a good bit like chicken of the woods. Both are fleshy and form rosettes,fan-shaped “leaves,” or shelves like Laetiporus mushrooms. Fortunately, they’re both edible! I will note, however, that these mushrooms aren’t for everyone, and whether or not they’re “choice” is a matter of personal preference.
Bondarzewia berkeleyi, Berkeley’s Polypore
Like chicken of the woods, Berkeley’s polypore has a blended
saprophytic and parasitic lifestyle, and it frequently shows up at the base of oak trees in and around the North Carolina Piedmont. Also like chicken of the woods mushrooms, Bondarzewia berkeleyi forms large fruiting bodies made up of layered and fan-shaped “leaves” with porous undersurfaces and concentric zones of mushroom flesh.
This mushroom can easily be distinguished from chicken of the woods on account of its color. Its cap is creamy-colored, sometimes developing a little bit of dingy brown on the edges as it dries out and gets old, and the pore surface is white, and runs down its stem, which tends to be fat, stumpy, and short. It normally grows on the ground at the base of trees, but you can occasionally find it on logs or stumps.
For my money, Bondarzewia berkeleyi is not very tasty; the ones I have tried has a somewhat unpleasant aroma and flavor that was sort of fungus-chemical rolled into one. Others, however, enjoy this mushroom very much, so don’t let me prejudice stop you from going nuts on the tender portions of the Berkeley’s polypore that you might happen to find!
Out west, Bondarzewia berkeleyi is replaced by Bondarzewia montana, which is a browner version of the same thing.
Meripilus sumstinei, the Black-Staining Polypore
Meripilus sumstinei is exceptionally common in North Carolina, and it fruits all summer long in my part of Raleigh. It is creamy-white to gray and forms big fans of flesh, and grows from the ground, particularly around oak trees. A casual observer could be mistake Meripilus sumstinei for the hen of the woods, Grifola frondosa, but if you inspect this mushroom you will quickly discover that it’s quite clearly something else.
The black-staining polypore can be distinguished from the hen of the woods easily because its fingers of flesh tend to be wide and fan-like, whereas the hen of the woods has many small growths that make it look like a gray-brown-whitish flower. Also, as the common name implies, Meripilus sumstinei stains dramatically black when it’s handled, cut, or bruised.
This mushroom is edible, but only when it is young and the flesh is tender. As it matures, it becomes very tough and simply cannot be eaten because it would be like chewing on wet styrofoam. Also a note on identification: in times past, mycologists thought that Meripilus sumstinei was the same as a European species that looks very similar, Meripilus giganteus, and some older field guides might list them as such.
The first specimen of Meripilus sumstinei I ever found was about a block from my house, and it was gigantic, nearly 3 feet across about 18 inches high. When I saw this monster, I simply had to get my hands on it so I approached my neighbor, a really nice elderly gentleman who was out cutting his lawn, and asked if I could have his giant mushroom. The look of relief on his face when I offered to take this massive eyesore off his well-maintained property was priceless, and he eagerly told me that I am entirely welcome to snatch any mushrooms I find on his lawn in the future. I still take advantage of this privilege, especially when the ringless honey mushroom, Armillaria tabescens, take over his lawn in the late summer.
My First Chicken of the Woods Mushroom
Subject: Attack of the Giant Orange Mushroom!
As you no doubt know, I really love hunting wild mushrooms, and October is a great month for this pastime. Last weekend, I found a huge orange mushroom that’s called chicken of the woods, and I cannot possibly eat all of it. I have brought a bunch of it and stashed it in a paper bag in the fridge. If you want to try a really tasty wild mushroom that (actually) tastes like chicken, take some home and cook it thoroughly! A few people are allergic to chicken of the woods mushrooms, so bear that in mind, but if you’re interested have at it!
This is an email I sent to my coworkers in October of 2009. You see, I had collected my first chicken of the woods, which was a magnificent specimen of the species Laetiporus conifericola that I found growing on a downed douglas fir in the Oregon coastal mountains. It was roughly 4 feet long and 2.5 feet in depth and was made up of many overlapping shelves of fungus.
Even though I only harvested the good parts (the outer growth zone of the mushroom), I still found myself with far more chicken of the woods than I could imagine eating in a short period of time. In recent years, my fondness for this particular mushroom has grown considerably, and so I strongly doubt that my current coworkers will receive any such missives from me these days!
However, the attorneys and support staff at the firm I was working at during that particular point in my life found my email amusing and curious, and in short order I was beset with questions about the chicken of the woods in our office fridge (will it go bad really fast if I take some home? How should I cook it? Does it really taste like chicken? Can you put it on skewers for the grill?).
After they were satisfied that I was not trying to poison them, several of my coworkers took bits of the mushroom home, and the next few days were marked by a flurry of emails and conversations about how astonishingly chicken-like it tasted and heated debates about the best preparations. At the end of the day, we agreed that Shane, one of the legal assistants, and his sauteed then grilled teriyaki chicken of the woods was the culinary winner.
Final Thoughts on Chicken of the Woods
Although I have exclusively addressed North American Laetiporus mushrooms in this article, it is worth noting that these massive polypores grow in many other parts of the world, with several distinctive varieties appearing in Japan, Europe, and South America.
As happens so often in mycology, for ages it was assumed that the European chickens of the woods were the same as those in the New World, and that the western, eastern, and southern U.S. Laetiporus mushrooms were all one species, Laetiporus sulfureus.
However, our growing understanding of this genus is yet another great example of how a rudimentary assumption about mushrooms is scarcely ever a good idea. There is a reason we call mushrooms cryptogams (literally, secret marriage, a biological term for organisms whose mating habits we cannot really see or understand), after all.
Even though we will likely learn more about Laetiporus in the future and some of the “known facts” might change, this does not alter the culinary nut’s bottom line: these delicious and vibrantly colored mushrooms are yet another wonderful addition to a table that’s graced with wild foods, and finding these creatures in the wild is an enchanting and exciting encounter with nature.