• Hen-of-the-woods mushrooms are described as "fall" mushrooms, but they can be found as early as late August, and as late as November.
• "Hens" grow best in damp conditions. Although much of Minnesota is currently experiencing a moderate drought, that can change quickly.
• Bur oak savannas are prime locations for finding hen-of-the-woods mushrooms. Look for the large fungi around the bases of living trees.
• To harvest a "hen," use a long knife to cut the main stem just above the ground.
• If you find a hen-of-the-woods, note the spot because they often grow in the same location year after year.
Brainerd, Minn. – I'll always remember the first hen-of-the-woods mushroom I found.
My foray afield on that late August afternoon was initially intended to be a deer-scouting effort. More precisely I was scrutinizing the local bur oaks to see if the acorns were ripe and dropping to the ground. As most deer hunters know, acorns are a favorite food of whitetails. During late August and early September one need only to find newly fallen acorns and eventually deer will show up. So will bears, turkeys, squirrels and other woodland wildlife.
When I spotted the first hen-of-the-woods I was initially 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 fall. Well, fall was almost a month away.
Unfortunately, my newly discovered hen-of-the-woods was nearly dried up and some parts were covered by what appeared to be mold. My finding though, prompted me to look further.
I recalled reading that "hens" as they are sometime called, grow at the bases of deciduous trees, usually bur oaks. So, during my deer-scouting-turned-to-mushroom hunt I simply ambled from bur oak to bur oak, which greatly narrowed down the search area. Even though the brownish colored fungi are well-camouflaged against the forest floor, it wasn't long before I discovered a second "hen."
This specimen was a dandy. I broke loose the dinner plate-sized mushroom from its main stem at ground level. Once home I removed the many spoon-shaped petals from the main stem, washed the pieces under cold water and stored them in the refrigerator.
Hen-of-the-woods are regarded as one of the most preferred mushrooms. Much of the reference material I have read describes "hens" as fall mushrooms, but, at least where I live in central Minnesota, the tasty mushrooms can be found in August, too. Every hen-of the-woods I have discovered grew at the base of a bur oak tree. I've discovered cool days following heavy precipitation are the best times to look for "hens." Bur oak savannas are prime locations.
The hen-of-the-woods mushroom is 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 woolly sheep's head.
Generally the overall shape of hens-of-the-woods is oval. The mushrooms, unlike toadstools, have many overlapping brown-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.
"Hens" are large mushrooms. The biggest I have found weighed 8 pounds, but some top 40 or 50 pounds. Most are about the size of a dinner plate.
Luckily, hen-of-the-woods can be easily stored. They can be cut into pieces and frozen without parboiling, or dried for later use.
As with all mushrooms, it is advisable to taste a small portion first, then wait a day or so to see if you experience an allergic reaction.
Hens-of-the-woods can be used in a variety of ways. Methods of preparing the tasty mushrooms are limited only by your imagination. Use them in any recipe that calls for mushrooms. Many recipes can be found on the Web. So can identifying photos. I prefer to simply sauté "hens" in butter and sprinkle lightly with steak seasoning.
Bill Marchel, an outdoors writer and photographer, lives near Brainerd.