Mushrooms grow in a variety of different places and substrates. Some flourish on the forest floor, while others thrive on trees. These tree-dwelling fungi vary greatly from their terrestrial cousins. These mushrooms grow on the trunks and roots of their hosts, forming a symbiotic relationship that benefits not only the tree but also the health of the surrounding forest ecosystem.
Some of these fungi form a mutualistic relationship with trees by assisting them in nutrient absorption, while others are saprophytic and play a significant role in the decomposition process. Several factors, such as the types of trees, the climatic conditions, and the geographical region influence the growth of these arboreal fungi. Many of the fungi on this list grow all over North America; however, their distribution is limited to their preferred host trees and climates. The conditions must be just right for them to establish themselves on trees and form their fruiting bodies.
Similar to land mushrooms that feed on organic matter on the forest floor, these tree fungi spread their mycelium throughout primarily dead or decaying trees. They feed on the lignin and cellulose inside of the wood. Trees and their roots provide essential carbohydrates and other nutrients. Some tree-dwelling fungi, such as wood decay fungi, break down dead wood and recycle the nutrients back into the ecosystem. This process is crucial to maintaining a healthy forest ecosystem and ensuring a better chance of survival for other trees.
Scientific name: Hericium erinaceus
Grows on: hardwood trees such as oak, beech, maple, sycamore, and American elms
Climate: high humidity at 80% and above with temperatures between 54-70° F
The fruiting body of this edible mushroom resembles a lion’s mane with its long, shaggy spines that grow off of it. Many studies have found that lion’s may boost nerve growth in the brain and increase memory. This mushroom is highly coveted by foragers and growers alike due to its crab-like flavor and unique texture.
Scientific name: Trametes versicolor
Grows on: dead wood and decaying hardwood trees such as oak, beech, willow, ash, and birch trees
Climate: prefers humid conditions and temperate climates around 55-70° F
The turkey tail mushroom is an incredibly common find on decaying wood, logs, or tree stumps. It has a fan-shaped cap with rings of several colors, slightly resembling an actual turkey tail. This mushroom is used for its medicinal potential as it has been used for centuries in ancient Chinese medicine, and its bioactive compounds are currently being studied for their immune-boosting and anti-cancer properties.
Scientific name: Grifola frondosa
Grows on: typically grows at the base of hardwood trees or on tree roots, primarily on oak trees but also older elm and maple trees Climate: moderate temperatures ranging from 50-68° F
Hen of the woods, also known as maitake, is a delicious edible mushroom that can be seen growing in large clusters around the base of trees and stumps. It is high in beta-glucans, making them great for regulating the immune system and blood pressure.
Scientific name: Auricularia auricula-judae
Grows on: dead and decaying trees, preferably fallen branches and logs of oak, spruce, douglas fir, pine, elder, poplars, and willows
Climate: warm and humid climates around 68-86° F, most common in regions with higher rainfall
The wood ear fungi is an edible mushroom common in many Chinese stirfry and soup recipes. It has a mild flavor and crunchy yet gelatinous texture. The mushroom is high in antioxidants and polyphenols and can be commonly found all year round on decaying wood as long as the climate is ideal.
Scientific name: Phaeolus schweinitzii
Grows on: coniferous trees such as the douglas fir, western hemlock, and sitka spruce
Climate: relatively high humidity with consistent moisture levels, cool to mild temperatures
This parasitic shelf fungus grows close to the ground and attacks the roots of trees. It is bright yellow to orange and is covered in a velvety fuzz, hence its alternative name, the velvet top fungus. The mushroom produces a dye that has been historically used to achieve bright yellow to dark brown hues.
Scientific name: Pleurotus ostreatus
Grows on: various deciduous hardwood trees such as beech, oak, maple, poplar, willow, and aspen
Climate: grows in temperatures around 68 to 7° F with high humidity ranging from 70% to 90%
Oyster mushrooms have a broad ecological range and can be found in various habitats. They have a mild yet seafood-like taste and versatile texture, making them a popular wild edible mushroom. There are more than 200 varieties of oyster mushrooms though the most common is the pearl oyster.
Scientific name: Laetiporus sulphureus
Grows on: can be found on decaying and dead trees such as oak, cherry, maple, beech, and occasionally some conifers
Climate: moderate temperatures between 59-77 degrees Fahrenheit in places with adequate rainfall or high humidity
The chicken of the woods mushroom, also known as the sulfur shelf mushroom, appears in overlapping clusters of bright orange and yellow fan-shaped fruiting bodies. They are wildly popular amongst foragers due to their easy-to-identify appearance and unique texture. When cooked, they mimic the texture of chicken and have a mild flavor making them a great meat substitute. Though edible, some individuals may experience gastrointestinal problems or an allergic reaction to this mushroom.
Scientific name: Ganoderma applanatum
Grows on: various dead and decaying hardwood trees such as oak, maple, beech, birch, willow, and poplar
Climate: cool to moderate temperatures between 50-77° F, requiring ample moisture such as regular rainfall or high humidity
The artist’s conk is a large bracket fungus with a top consisting of various hues of brown and a white underside. When the surface of the underside is scratched, it bruises brown, which makes it a brilliant canvas for artistic sketches. This mushroom is in the same species as reishi and has similar medicinal benefits. It has been used in traditional medicine to increase blood flow, improve digestive function, and boost energy and immune system response.
Scientific name: Armillaria sp.
Grows on: most hardwood and conifer species, including oak, maple, birch, pine, fir, and poplar
Climate: prefers cooler climates with high rainfall or humidity with temperatures ranging from 41-70° F
The honey mushroom is a common find during the fall and early winter with their golden honey-colored to brown caps. There are several varieties of honey mushrooms within the Armillaria genus. Many kinds are popular edible wild mushrooms, though one of their most common look-alikes is the deadly galerina (Galerina marginata) which is incredibly toxic.
Scientific name: Fistulina hepatica
Grows on: both dead and living trees, notably oak and sweet chestnut
Climate: grows best in moderate temperatures around 50-68° F with high humidity and consistent moisture levels
The beefsteak fungus resembles raw steak, especially when cut open. It has a bright reddish-brown hue and smooth, moist flesh. The mushroom is edible and a great meat replacement. It mimics meat so well that it even oozes a red, blood-looking substance at times.
Scientific name: Tremella mesenterica
Grows on: decaying or dead hardwoods such as oak, birch, beech, maple, ash
Climate: temperate to cool climates around 50 to 77° F and requires a high humidity and damp habitat
Witches butter is a jelly fungus that’s bright yellow or orange, making it easy to identify. As they age, they may lose their color or become darker. This mushroom does not feed directly on wood but instead feasts on other fungi under the tree bark. They are edible and can be used similarly to wood ear mushrooms.
Scientific name: Polyporus squamosus
Grows on: dead or decaying hardwood trees such as oaks, maples, elms, sycamore, and ash
Climate: cool to moderate temperatures between 50 to 68° F with consistent moisture levels, favoring areas with heavy rainfall or high humidity
Dryad’s saddles form large fan-shaped fruiting bodies covered by brown scales. They grow in layers as the younger fruiting bodies form beneath the more mature ones. This mushroom is an underrated edible, though only consumable when they are younger as they become too tough as they get older.
Scientific name: Fomitopsis betulina
Grows on: birch trees
Climate: cooler climates around 41-68 degrees Fahrenheit with high humidity
The birch polypore is a parasitic fungus that grows exclusively on birch trees. They grow as rounded, semicircular thick brackets with brown tops and white undersides. Humans have used this fungus for thousands of years as a medicine, fire starter, and tool sharpener.
Scientific name: Inonotus obliquus
Grows on: primarily birch trees but occasionally alder, oak, cherry, and beech
Climate: cold temperatures between 32-68 degrees Fahrenheit with consistent moisture
Chaga does not look like your typical mushroom with its black, irregularly shaped exterior that grows ass masses on birch trees. When cut open, they have a copper-colored interior. It is well-known as a medicinal mushroom used in many functional mushroom brands today due to its high antioxidants, triterpenoids, and polysaccharide. However, these bioactive ingredients are only found if the mushroom grows on a birch host.
The next time you spot a fungus growing on a tree during your next hike, why not stop to identify it and determine its role in the forest ecosystem? Maybe it has a symbiotic relationship with its host, or perhaps it’s meant to break down decaying trees. They may even have a negative impact on the ecosystem if they are parasitic and non-native. Regardless, it’s always nice to take a moment to appreciate the tree-dwelling fungi growing all around you, whether they are up high in a tree trunk or on fallen branches.
Remember, while some of the fungi on this list are delicious or hold medicinal qualities, you should never eat a wild mushroom that you cannot identify with 100% certainty. There are several look-alikes to some of the tasty mushroom species on this list, so always double-check with an experienced mycologist or forager before chowing down.