Urban Forager | Maitake Mushrooms

The proliferation of steady rains from August onwards has yielded a stunning crop of mushrooms this fall, both edible and otherwise. Recently, I found a lovely maitake mushroom cluster that weighed over two pounds growing at the base of a giant pin oak near where I was staying just outside New Paltz. The maitake had grown over and around a fallen branch, and there were a few acorns attached to the bottom. I took the whole thing home.

Maitake (Grifola frondosa) also known as hen of the woods, ram’s or sheep’s head, or signorina mushroom, is one of the first signs of early fall in our area. This edible fungus has cascading beige-grayish-brown caps with wavy margins that resemble the multilayered tiers of a flamenco skirt; flip it over and you’ll find a white underside filled with tiny holes the size of pinpricks (it’s a polypore), and a network of lateral stems which attach to an off-center stalk.

Preferring the base of old oak trees, mature maitakes are often large — generally 1 to 2 feet across, though they can grow up to a yard — with a weight of several pounds.

The Japanese call maitake the “dancing mushroom.” In Chinese medicine, it is considered an immunity enhancer. Lookalikes include the black-staining polypore (Meripilus sumstinei) and the umbrella polypore (Polyporus umbellatus), which are varying degrees of edible, so long as they are young. Though Grifola frondosa is rich in vitamins and minerals, it also contains tyramine, which should be avoided by those who are on antidepressant medications.

I first became aware of hen of the woods mushrooms as friends were finding them under city oak trees several years ago. One taste of this delicious wild edible and I was hooked — I could understand why it commanded such a generous price at gourmet markets. Each fall, I’ve seen them growing under oaks and on the stumps of old trees from Kew Forest in Queens to Willowbrook, Staten Island.

I recommend maitake sliced and sautéed in a little extra virgin olive oil and butter, with shallots, garlic, a touch of sherry, and some salt and pepper to taste.


Ava Chin is a professor of creative nonfiction and journalism at the College of Staten Island. Read other Urban Forager columns.

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