Medicinal mushrooms have been used for centuries to help nourish and support the body. And with so many mushrooms to explore, you may have missed learning about hen of the woods mushrooms—a uniquely beautiful mushroom revered in traditional medicine schools for its legendary purported healing properties.
In this guide, you’ll learn all about hen of the woods mushrooms. We’ll talk about what they look like, where they grow, how modern science is validating the health benefits of these mushrooms and much more. Let’s jump in!
Hen of the woods mushrooms are an edible mushroom revered in traditional medicine schools (more on this later). Their scientific name is grifola frondosa (g. frondosa), although they go by several common names: sheep’s head, ram’s head, hui shu hua (Chinese for “gray tree flower,”), Klapperschwamm (German) (1), Kumotake (Japanese for “cloud mushroom”), maitake mushrooms (“dancing mushroom” in Japanese), and dancing butterfly mushroom.
The taxonomy for hen of the woods mushrooms is as follows:
Psst: Hen of the woods mushrooms aren’t the same as chicken of the woods mushrooms or the black staining polypore (Meripilus sumstinei). And while they both grow in rosettes and a shape similar to hen of the woods, these are hen of the woods look-alikes and not the real thing.
Hen of the woods mushrooms are fleshy polypore mushrooms that are typically dark gray-brown when young and become a lighter gray as they age. Like turkey tail mushrooms, hen of the woods mushrooms grow in a shelf-like formation, with fronds overlapping with a solid base (2).
It’s not unusual to see some hen of the woods that are white or shades of tan and brown. Occasionally, they may even have a lavender tint to their coloring. Instead of gills underneath the caps like mushrooms, hen of the woods have dozens of tiny pores that feel rough when you run your finger along them (1).
Psst: Hen of the woods mushrooms can grow to enormous sizes. Mycologist Bill Chapman was once photographed with a hen of the woods specimen that was five feet in circumference and weighed more than 40 pounds (2)!
When looking for hen of the woods mushrooms, expect to see them fruiting at the base of old oak trees and other hardwoods. Hen of the woods grow on stumps, too, and along with oaks, you may see them on other living trees such as elms, maples, black gum, beech, and sometimes larch trees.
These mushrooms favor temperate and deciduous forests. In North America, you can find them in eastern Canada and throughout northeastern and mid-Atlantic states (2), where you can find them in late summer or early fall (1).
Hen of the woods are native to northeastern regions of Japan and temperate hardwood regions in China and Europe (2).
Psst: While hen of the woods mushrooms are commonly thought to grow on dead and dying trees, most mycologists agree that they’re taking advantage of dying tree tissue and aren’t the cause (or a contributing factor) of the tree’s death (2).
In Eastern medicine, hen of the woods mushrooms are known to positively affect the spleen, kidney, lung, and large intestine meridians, boosting Qi to these areas. These mushrooms also promote urination, reduce inflammation, and calm the Shen (3).
In traditional Chinese medicine, the three treasures (Jing, Qi, and Shen) form the basis of health for the human body. According to Dr. Lily Choi’s Heal Yourself with Traditional Chinese Medicine, you can think of Jing as the essence of you, and something that’s meant to be cherished and protected. Shen represents your spirit and mind, and Qi is the vital life force energy for you and all living things. And while each of these are inherited, they can also be cultivated and nourished by the foods you eat, making hen of the woods mushrooms a wise choice for nurturing your three treasures.
Hen of the woods mushrooms have earned their place as a medicinal mushroom for good reason; they’re deeply nourishing to the body.
Studies show organically grown hen of the woods mushrooms are high in protein, fiber, B vitamins such as niacin, riboflavin, and pantothenic acid, and a rich source of potassium.
Researchers have also found these mushrooms to exhibit a positive effect in modulating glucose levels, which could reduce cases of type 2 diabetes (4). This medicinal fungi treats other metabolic syndromes, including high blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and may protect the pancreas.
The benefits don’t stop there, as hen of the woods demonstrates a remarkable ability to support the immune system. The polysaccharides, specifically beta-glucans, are known for their anticancer, antiviral, and antitumor properties.
One component, maitake d-fraction, is being isolated and studied by researchers to examine the extent of its anticancer effects on the body (3). Animal studies show how d-fraction enhances the immune system by activating macrophages that stimulate T cells and natural killer cells (5).
Even though you may feel more than ready for some local hen of the woods mushroom hunting, there are some essential things to learn before you go mushroom foraging. Especially the difference between foraging and wildcrafting. While those terms may seem interchangeable, they vary tremendously in their approach.
Foraging is a general term referring to gathering wild food sources (think berries, herbs, and other plants), while wildcrafting is more specifically defined as harvesting local resources for medicinal needs. Ethical wildcrafting is mindful and intentional in its approach, weighing both short- and long-term consequences of gathering resources and how it may impact the local environment.
Before heading out, learn about the local area where you’ll gather your hen of the woods mushrooms. Look into whether or not you need any special permits or permissions for where you plan on harvesting your mushrooms; you may need them if you plan on gathering in a national forest.
Be sure to pay attention to whether there may be threatened or endangered mushroom species in the area. Learning about any potentially dangerous look-alikes you could encounter while looking for hen of the woods mushrooms is also essential.
And before bringing anything home, be sure you’ve correctly identified what you’ve gathered. We recommend consulting a field guide or another reliable source for mushroom identification. If you still need clarification, be sure to consult a professional.
Properly harvesting hen of the woods mushrooms starts with knowing little about mushroom anatomy.
When we think we see the whole mushroom, we only see part of it: the fruiting body. Hiding just beneath the surface lies another exciting world.
The mycelium is a network of delicate filaments called hyphae responsible for helping mushrooms communicate with each other and their environment. And it’s much more sophisticated than we could have imagined.
Scientists have learned more about fungal communication: information passes along the hyphae through tiny electrical impulses. Mushrooms communicate through understanding a wide range of chemical signals. They can differentiate meaning depending on context and in relation to other chemicals.
Keeping this network intact is essential, so bring the proper tools for harvesting your mushrooms. There is some debate about whether it’s better to cut a mushroom at its base or gently twist it free. Whatever harvesting method you choose, do your best to keep the mycelial network intact.
Remember that we’re sharing one of nature’s resources when you’re out gathering your wild mushrooms. Birds, deer, rodents, insects, and other critters rely on mushrooms like hen of the woods. Being mindful of taking only what you need goes a long way in protecting the local ecosystem and ensuring it doesn’t become imbalanced through overharvesting.
Once you’ve brought your mushrooms home, consider making a spore print. Creating a spore print is similar to logging our fingerprints into a database. You can use them for identifying future mushrooms, as a piece of nature-inspired art, or as a way to start growing your own mushrooms from home.
Rest your mushroom cap on a piece of paper where it won’t be disturbed for several hours (ideally overnight). Spores will fall from the underside of the cap and be collected on your piece of paper.
And while there’s more to harvesting mushrooms (substrate, sawdust, and mushroom spawn—oh my!), making a spore print is one way to keep enjoying your favorite mushrooms without impacting the local environment.
Hen of the woods mushrooms are every cook’s dream. Like other wild mushrooms, their earthy flavor enhances any dish, from salads and stir-fries to galettes and more. Depending on where you live, you may need to visit local farmer’s markets, Asian supermarkets, or specialty produce shops to find them. When you’re ready, grab an apron and check out some of our favorite hen of the woods mushroom recipes.
Psst: To keep your mushrooms fresh for longer, store them in a paper bag in the refrigerator. You can add a damp paper towel to keep them from drying out. When you’re ready to get cookin’, skip rinsing them and use a pastry brush to clean off any debris.
When you need a snack or meal in a hurry, it doesn’t get much quicker than sautéed mushrooms. These crispy mushrooms make a beautiful addition to a holiday meal or a delightful topping on toast. In a large skillet, add enough olive oil to cover the surface and add mushrooms, making sure they don’t overlap. Gently sauté until golden brown and crisp, finishing with fried garlic slices and fresh thyme.
This creamy mushroom pasta recipe ticks all the boxes when you’re looking for a cozy and soul-satisfying supper. Simple and easy to cook, this dish makes your hen of the woods mushrooms the star of the show.
A few things to remember: Well-salted water is essential for flavoring your pasta. Be sure to drain your noodles while they’re still slightly undercooked. And more is definitely better in the mushroom department — add morel or cremini mushrooms for even more rich, umami flavor to your dish.
A simple mushroom galette is a fantastic way to show off your beautiful hen of the woods mushrooms. It’s a flexible dish: easy enough for a relaxing Sunday and elegant enough for company, delicious warm or at room temperature. It’s sure to please everyone at the table.
Fold blue cheese crumbles into a delectable mix of savory sauteed mushrooms and spoon the mixture into a delicate sour cream pastry dough. Bake until golden brown, and enjoy!
With their potent medicinal properties revered throughout the centuries, hen of the woods mushrooms are a delectable way to support your body and its functions. Their earthy flavor enhances any dish and makes incorporating these mushrooms into your routine super simple.
Still craving mushrooms? For more mushroom happenings, including news and breakthroughs on medicinal and psychedelic mushrooms, be sure to keep up with us on shroomer.