Chicken of the woods isn’t just the quirky name of a functional mushroom; it’s also a popular fungi among vegetarians as its texture, color, and flavor can be strikingly similar to that of poultry. But this mushroom also shines in its health benefits, ranging from being an excellent antioxidant to combating certain harmful bacteria.
However, there are a couple of caveats when it comes to chicken of the woods—including potential allergic reactions and non-edible lookalikes. Here’s what you need to know about this incredible shroom.
Chicken of the woods, scientifically known as Laetiporus sulphureus, is a parasitic wood-decay mushroom native to North America and Europe. Not to be confused with hen of the woods (aka maitake mushrooms), its curious nickname stems from its chicken meat-like appearance and flavor, making it one of the top choices among vegetarians and vegans. The species also goes by the common names sulfur shelf (sometimes spelled as sulphur shelf) or polypore.
L. sulphureus is one of the largest and most colorful fungi species that we know of. Chicken of the wood clusters can grow to 75 cm (30 in) across, featuring several shelf-like fruiting bodies ranging from a bright yellow or orange color to white.
Chicken of the woods mushrooms are great examples of parasitic and saprobic species—meaning they can grow in living and dead hardwood trees. They are particularly fond of oak trees (Quercus genus) and usually fruit during summer and fall.
Although L. sulphureus is highly sought-after due to its delicious and tender flavor, experts point out that some people may have allergic reactions. Up to 20% of people may get gastrointestinal problems after eating chicken of the woods—even if it’s cooked correctly (1) (2).
Still, don’t let that discourage you. L. sulphureus is a fantastic species that can amaze even the most experienced mushroom lover.
Chicken of the woods is a unique fungus, featuring fruiting bodies consisting of several individual fan-shaped caps arranged in a shelving, rosette-like formation. The caps typically measure 5–30 cm (2–12 in), showing a bright orange to pale yellow color that fades in older specimens. The clusters formed by these caps can grow up to 75 cm (30 in) across.
Like oyster mushrooms, the stem is completely absent, as the caps are directly attached to the host trees. The flesh is thick but soft, eventually becoming harder and more wrinkled with age. The spore print is white—although experts warn that it’s particularly hard to get (3).
The taxonomy of the whole Laetiporus genus is rather complicated, as several similar species can also be described as subspecies or varieties of other species.
We’ve done our best to compile five examples of species that closely resemble L. sulphureus. While you may find conflicting reports as to whether these are separate species or actual varieties, here are some brief descriptions of each one.
You may find all of this confusing if you’re new to mushroom harvesting. All of these varieties or species can be considered chicken of the woods, and misidentifying them for L. sulphureus is surprisingly common (1).
The real problem stems from not all Laetiporus species being equally edible. Experts suggest that the mushrooms growing on conifers are more prone to cause poisoning—so make sure you only eat wild chicken of the woods under the supervision of a professional (4).
Not much is known about the history of chicken of the woods. There’s no evidence to suggest ancient cultures consumed these mushrooms, and the taxonomical history isn’t well documented.
All we know is that the fungi was first described by French mycologist Pierre Bulliard in 1789. However, he originally called it “Boletus sulphurus.” Several scientists later tried to correct this name, reclassifying the species multiple times between 1821 and 1878.
It wasn’t until 1920 that American mycologist William Murrill gave it its current name under the genus Laetiporus, which means “with bright pores.” But things haven’t been quiet since then. Since the discovery of DNA-based analysis, research has been non-stop discovering and later reclassifying new subspecies such as the ones mentioned above (5) (1).
This makes it hard for field guides and mushroom manuals to keep up on the new species of chicken of the woods—who knew mushrooms could get this complicated?
Laetiporus sulphureus is a perfect example of “functional mushrooms”—fungi species with significant health and nutritional properties. Surprisingly, chicken of the woods has been largely overlooked as a medicinal tool, but recent research shows it may be as valuable as other, more famous fungi.
Nutritionally, L. sulphureus contains between 65–90% water, so keep in mind we’ll be discussing dried values instead. Carbohydrates comprise almost 75% of the dry matter, with protein taking up 9–21% of the rest. The remaining content is mostly fat, ash, and fiber.
Chicken of the woods also provides the following micronutrients (among others):
The benefits are even more surprising. One of the most important is its antioxidant activities, similar to those of oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus). In turn, this could lead to improved intestinal and liver health.
Another key benefit is L. sulphureus’ antibacterial and antifungal effects. Using extracts obtained from fruiting bodies, researchers observed how L. sulphureus reduced the activities of several harmful pathogens. Among these were famous bacteria such as Escherichia coli, Staphylococcus aureus, and Pseudomonas aeruginosa.
Like many other mushrooms, L. sulphureus is also being investigated for its antitumor effects. Experts claim that certain compounds in the mushroom can reduce the migration potential of specific carcinogenic cells. Still, research is in its early stages.
L. sulphureus may also have significant anti-inflammatory, immunomodulatory, and neuroprotective properties. These benefits may be used for managing several conditions, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
Other possible benefits of chicken of the woods are its hepatoprotective, gastric analgesic, probiotic, insulinogenic, and metabolism-modulating effects. Similarly, it may be useful for certain gynecological, dental, and cosmetic applications.
Although more research is needed to fully confirm these benefits, L. sulphureus may be one of the most promising fungi ever seen. Is there anything these colorful friends can’t do? (6)
Laetiporus sulphureus is a prevalent fungus native to North America and Europe. It has also been reported in South America, Africa, and Asia, but to a much lesser extent.
Chicken of the woods appears on living and dead hardwood tree trunks, logs, and stumps, forming a parasitic relationship (if the tree is still alive). While it can grow in most hardwoods, it prefers oaks. A curious fact about L. sulphureus is that the fruiting bodies don’t appear until well after the mycelium has settled in—meaning any trees that grow visible L. sulphureus are probably past the point of recovery.
L. sulphureus’ fruiting bodies tend to appear during summer and fall, with some rare reports of them also growing during winter and spring. While not the easiest mushroom to grow at home, it’s possible to cultivate it artificially through substrates such as wheat bran and oak sawdust (6) (7).
Ethical wildcrafting means harvesting resources (such as mushrooms) from the environment without damaging the local ecology. Many people confuse wildcrafting with foraging—the key difference is that wildcrafting refers to harvesting for medicinal purposes, and the latter for eating.
Practicing ethical wildcrafting is the best way to keep local mushroom populations healthy and thriving. It can also avoid damage to other nearby animal and tree species that benefit from the fungi. Here are some of the key things to keep in mind:
We recommend looking into local harvesting groups if you’re new to mushroom wildcrafting. Experienced mycologists will gladly show you the ropes and teach you how to keep the environment healthy.
Unfortunately, it’s never 100% safe to eat wild mushrooms—no matter the species. This is even more true regarding chicken of the woods, as several lookalikes may not be as edible as L. sulphureus. If you’re set on wildcrafting this one, take note of the species we mentioned above.
Furthermore, wild mushrooms often carry toxins from the environment. These can lead to gastric discomfort and other issues. Only eat wild L. sulphureus under the close supervision of a professional.
There isn’t a specific way to eat chicken of the woods. Their chicken-like flavor and meaty texture make them a versatile option that can go well with almost any meal. From Italian dishes like risotto to simple recipes such as stews, L. sulphureus can find its place in almost any recipe.
Still, if it’s your first time cooking chicken of the woods, here are some ideas.
Sautéed chicken of the woods: Heat a large skillet, add olive oil and the mushroom pieces (make sure you wash and chop them beforehand). Cook until they turn golden brown, and add garlic, salt, and black pepper. Cook for five more minutes, and add a dash of white wine and lemon juice. Simmer for a bit and enjoy!
Chicken of the woods picatta: Slice the mushrooms while you preheat a large skillet with some olive oil. Whisk together some flour and salt in a medium-sized bowl, and lightly coat the mushrooms. Finally, cook the coated fungi for about four minutes on each side. You can then add these delicious nuggets to some pasta or salad.
Remember to always double-check that you can tolerate L. sulphureus. The species is known for being hard to digest for some people, so try eating a small bit first to see how it settles in your stomach.
Chicken of the woods is one of the most popular meat substitutes among vegans and vegetarians. Its flavor and texture closely resemble that of poultry, making it a versatile choice for almost any dish. More than its appealing taste, chicken of the woods offers a variety of potential health benefits. Just remember that not everyone tolerates this fungus well so try it in small amounts for the first time.
If you want to find out about other types of mushrooms, keep up on shroomer. Here, you’ll find all the details you need about psychedelic and functional fungi from all over the world, along with the latest news on medicinal research on edible mushrooms.