Maitake, taxonomically known as Grifola frondosa and colloquially known as “Hen of the Woods,” is a delicious gourmet and medicinally potent mushroom.
A soft-fleshed, large-sized saprotroph polypore, Maitake is a Basidiomycota fungi and white rot fungus. Maitake grows in temperate parts of North America, especially in the northeastern and mid-Atlantic United States, eastern Canada, the northeastern regions of Japan, and the temperate hardwood forests of China and Europe, where it was first discovered.
Hunting Down Hens
To identify Maitake mushrooms in the wild, here are some general morphographic traits to look for:
- Overlapping, wavy caps 2 to 10cm in diameter that share a common base and are dark grey brown when young but lighten in color and can stain yellow with age
- White pores on the underside of the mushroom
- White spores
Usually, Maitake is found in aged oak woodlands at the base of oak trees, where it causes butt rot, but it can be found at the base of any dead or dying deciduous hardwood tree, especially oak, elm, maple, blackgum, and beech.
Maitake, like Lion’s Mane and Shiitake mushrooms, is both an edible, choice gourmet mushroom, and a medicinal or “functional” mushroom. Though most of the research surrounding the medicinal properties of Maitake mushrooms has thus far been conducted on animals, certain polysaccharides in Maitake mushrooms have demonstrated the potential to prevent and treat cancerous tumors, prevent HIV, and moderate blood sugar levels by aiding insulin production and decreasing the amount of starch that’s digested into sugar.
Compounds within Maitake have also shown the potential to lower cholesterol levels, increase fatty acids, and increase the production of t-cells, which are one subset of cells that comprise the immune system.
Munchin’ on Maitake
Nutritionally, Maitake mushrooms are like most mushrooms: nutrient-dense, containing antioxidants, and mineral rich and fat, sodium, and cholesterol free. Maitake mushrooms are a great source of beta-d-glucans, vitamins B and C, copper, potassium, fiber, minerals, and amino acids and are naturally fat free, cholesterol free, and low in calories and sodium.
Maitake mushrooms are considered one of the more challenging mushrooms to grow due to their long incubation and fruiting times. Cultivated Maitake mushrooms are also oftentimes much smaller than their wild foraged brethren, raising the barrier to cultivation even higher.
Next time you stumble onto a patch of brown or grey mushrooms at the base of a hardwood tree that look like the tail of a hen, stop for a minute and as they say in the foraging world, “key it out!” You may have just happened upon the highly sought after, delicious, and medicinal mushroom that is Maitake!
- Growing Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms, Paul Stamets
- Radical Mycology, Peter McCoy