A few weekends ago, while rushing through Central Park toward a breakfast date, I spied a giant cluster of scaly brown mushrooms that resembled a bird’s plumage, partially hidden under some weeds. Closer inspection revealed a cacophony of fungi spread out across an old tree stump — one mushroom growing singly like a shelf, others in trumpet-shaped clusters, and a few as large as pancakes. Each had that lovely speckled pattern fanning out across the cap.
Dryad’s saddle (Polyporus squamosus), a k a pheasant’s back mushroom, is a polypore fungus — meaning it contains numerous pores on its underside — that grows on hardwood trees and stumps, with a scaly, dark-tan-to-brownish cap that resembles a pheasant’s feathery back. Place one on a piece of colored paper overnight and you’ll find a white spore print the next day. Dryad’s saddle is common east of the Rocky Mountains, and occasionally in Washington and California, and when mature it can grow to the size of a dinner plate. I’ve seen Polyporus squamosus as large as two feet across in Forest Park, Queens, and of course, these recent smaller beauties in Central Park.
In mid- to late spring, when Dryad’s saddle makes its appearance, it often plays sloppy seconds to morels. I first found them growing on a log during a morel hunt in Westchester, where other more seasoned mycologists barely raised an eyebrow. Though edible when extremely young, David Aurora, author of “Mushrooms Demystified,” describes Polyporus squamosus as being “thoroughly mediocre.”
I admire the size and beauty of these bracket mushrooms, and their tenacity to grow among the hardwood stumps across the city. While Dryad’s saddle may be a tough culinary sell, I have boiled them in water for several hours to create a deep, mushroomy soup stock.