Let’s go hen hunting

This white oak has been producing a hen mushroom for decades and now produces “chicks” like the one nestled up against the trunk. (Photo by Mike Schoonveld)

My wife doesn’t particularly like cool or cold weather fishing. She duck hunted with me once, then we got married and that stopped. But there’s one fall activity we participate in as a couple every year – harvesting Hen of the Woods mushrooms.

Hens go by many names  including sheephead, cauliflower, Maitake, or one I find quite descriptive called hen and chicks. This last name comes from how trees with “older” hen of the woods mushrooms have one “mother” or hen that grows large, but nearby around the base of the same tree smaller versions of one or more “chicks” can be found.

Hen of the Woods mushrooms are perennials. They grow in the same place, year after year after, well,  I have no idea how long a hen mushroom will grow. As with other mushrooms, the above ground portion is just the “flower” that produces the spores that spread to sprout and grow additional mushrooms. I’ve been picking both hens and chicks off one tree not far from my house for more than 25 years.

That’s why I call it harvesting more than hunting. The hunting for my “mushroom” trees has been ongoing for almost 50 years. I still keep my eye out for new trees with mushrooms growing on them as I hunt, trap, travel and hike through woodlands in my area and I have a mental map of where my trees are found. I usually find one or two new trees each year and give up on one or two that no longer produce.

From mid-September to mid-November, my wife and I hit the mushroom trail once or twice a week. Some trips result in one or none, others result in a haul. Each one is welcome since many mushroom-savvy chefs regard Maitakes second only to truffles for flavor.

We eat most of the mushrooms we harvest more or less fresh. (However, they will store in the refridgerator for weeks.) We’ve canned them in Mason jars, froze them, and dried them as well.

All of the Hen of the Moods I’ve ever found were on black, white, or burr oak trees. Those are the only oaks in my area, except pin oaks in low lying areas and I’ve never found one on a pin oak. The soil is probably too wet. I bet they grow just fine on red oaks or other species growing on well-drained soils. However, the trees need to be mature.

Finding a hen of the woods on a tree much less than two feet in diameter is rare. Bigger, older oaks are best.

Some people make maps to remind themselves of where to look, then check the trees on a regular basis all fall. I check all my trees regularly until the hen sprouts. Then check nearby, similar sized oaks, as well.

A Hen of the Woods won’t grow on all of them, but it’s not unusual to find three or four growing in the same vicinity.

Categories: Michigan – Mike Schoonveld

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