Chicken Of The Woods

A Guide To Sulphur Shelf Mushrooms in British Columbia

Chicken of the woods is an orange edible shelf mushroom that grows in the forests of British Columbia. It is known for its meaty texture and bright-orange-to-yellow colouring

"Chicken of the woods" is the common name for all edible Laetiporus mushrooms. The chicken of the woods species found in British Columbia are Laetiporus gilbertsonii and Laetiporus conifericola. Members of this genus are found all over the world and are sometimes called "chicken of the forest" or "sulphur shelf".

There is a lot of speculation about the edibility of chicken of the woods growing on different kinds of trees. However, it is unlikely that the type of tree it grows on makes any difference. A small but significant number of people simply have a bad reaction to eating this mushroom, so caution is advised.

Chicken of the woods mushroom growing from a stump on Vancouver Island

Above: Laetiporus gilbertsonii growing from a stump

How To Identify Chicken Of The Woods

Identifying chicken of the woods is relatively easy compared to other mushrooms. Look for these features and characteristics:

  • Fan-like shape of relatively even thickness

  • Smooth surface

  • Firm texture similar to a hard rubber, becoming more woody at the base

  • Bright orange to light lemon yellow at the margin and underneath

  • No gills, spines, teeth, or comb-like structures underneath

  • No stem

Where To Find Chicken Of The Woods

Laetiporus species are parasitic, growing either from dead trees, or from cracks or stumps on living ones. The mushrooms cause brown rot in their hosts, breaking down of the cellulose structure and leaving the blocks of brown wood matter behind.

Laetiporus gilbertsonii grows on varieties of hardwoods, including decorative plum and cherry trees in urban areas.

Laetiporus conifericola grows on conifers, especially hemlock, spruce, and Douglas fir.

If you find a chicken of the woods mushroom, take note of the location because they will likely appear in subsequent years. However, they are efficient decomposers and will eventually deplete their host.

Chicken of the woods appear sporadically and seemingly at random. You may find one growing next to a busy street, or deep in a forest. Unlike, say, oyster mushrooms, where any stand of dead alders in a creek looks promising, there are no good places to start with chicken of the woods.

Simply walk around at the right time of the year and keep your eyes open, and eventually you'll find them.

Wood brown rot

Brown rot

Chicken Of The Woods Season in BC

The best time to find chicken of the woods in southern British Columbia is late August. More generally, chicken of the woods can be found from late spring through to early fall.

Harvesting Chicken Of The Woods

Only harvest chicken of the woods when the colour is bright and clear. Browning or discoloured specimens should be avoided. Furthermore, only the most tender parts of the mushroom near the margin should be eaten.

Starting at their base, chicken of the woods mushrooms become pale and the texture becomes more like cork as they get older. Eventually, they turn to chalk and fall off the tree. Finding clumps of white chalk around a dead tree is a good sign that chicken of the woods will fruit on it the next year.

When chicken of the woods mushrooms do fruit, they can appear in large quantities, enough for several meals.

The specimen of chicken of the woods to the right is well past its prime.

Old and decaying chicken of the woods mushroom

Sulphur Shelf Mushrooms - Naming & Classification

Until relatively recently, chicken of the woods mushrooms in British Columbia were classified as Laetiporus sulphureus. However, a publication in 2001 by Harold H. Burdsall and Mark T. Banik recognized two new and distinct species in western North America. The first, L. gilbertsonii, was classified on the basis of a specimen discovered in California's Golden Gate Park, and the second, L. conifericola was based on a specimen collected in Alaska.

L. gilbertsonii versus L. conifericola

Laetiporus conifericola and Laetiporus gilbertsonii, the two varieties of chicken of the woods mushrooms found on Vancouver Island, are very similar and both are considered choice edibles. They are primarily distinguished by their substrate, as the former grows on conifers, and the latter grows on hardwoods (much like L. sulphureus).

Another possible difference is that L. conifericola is typically thinner and more "frilly", while L. gilbertsonii tends to be more bulbous and irregular.

Other "Chicken" Mushrooms In BC

There are a number of edible mushroom varieties named after chickens. For example, there is the maitake mushroom (Grifola frondosa), also known as "hen of the woods", and the "fried chicken mushroom", Lyophyllum decastes. None of these mushrooms actually taste like chicken.

Chicken of the woods mushroom growing on hardwood tree

Above: Laetiporus gilbertsonii (Image Source)

Chicken of the woods mushroom growing on conifer tree log

Above: Laetiporus conifericola (Image Source)

Chicken Of The Woods Look Alikes

Chicken of the woods could be confused for some other yellow or orange-coloured bracket fungi. Examples of these include:

  • Phaeolus schweinitzii

  • Bondarzewia mesenterica

  • Bondarzewia berkeley

  • Pycnoporus cinnabarinus

  • Pycnoporellus fulgens

  • Ganoderma oregonense

  • Inonotus circinatus

  • Inonotus tomentosus

  • Gloeophyllum sepiarium

  • Merulius tremellosus

  • Stereum hirsutum

  • Abortiporus biennis

Dyer's polypore mushroom

Above: Phaeolus schweinitzii, dyer's polypore.

Omnia tomentosa mushroom

Above: Onnia tomentosa (Source)

Berkeley's polypore mushroom

Above: Bondarzewia berkeleyi , Berkeley's polypore (Source)

The key features for identifying chicken of the woods are the outer colour and texture. Chicken of the woods are bright orange or yellow. A brown, rusty, or burnt coloured mushroom, is either not a chicken of the woods or one that has past its eat-by date. Chicken of the woods mushrooms are also smooth, both on top and underneath. Furry, toothed, or rough mushrooms are likely not chicken of the woods.

Is there a poisonous mushroom that looks like chicken of the woods?

The Jack-o-Lantern mushroom looks a bit like chicken of the woods - it is orange and grows from trees and is poisonous. However, since the pool of practical lookalikes for chicken of the woods consists mostly of woody bracket fungi, which are generally inedible, the question of "poisonous look alikes" is somewhat moot.

Cooking Chicken Of The Woods

It's important to note that a small but significant percentage of people are made sick by consuming chicken of the woods. As such, caution should be practiced. Make sure to cook it thoroughly, only consume the freshest parts, and only try a small bite the first time.

Chicken of the woods has a few other characteristics that make it an interesting mushroom to cook and eat:

  • They can take a significant amount of cooking without losing firmness

  • Have a faint "lemony" flavour

  • Slightly dry or astringent quality

The last of these means that, unlike many other wild mushrooms, you can cook and pair chicken of the woods with various sources of moisture. Add butter liberally, finish with a splash of white wine, or keep some dipping sauce handy.

Chicken of the woods can be frozen and reheated.

Does Chicken Of The Woods Taste Like Chicken?

No, the chicken of the woods mushroom does not taste like chicken. However, the firm meaty texture and ability to soak up flavours is definitely chicken-like and makes it an excellent meat substitute.

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Questions About Chicken Of The Woods Mushrooms

Can chicken of the woods make you sick?

Eating chicken of the woods mushrooms does cause sickness in a small but significant number of people. This sickness takes the form of mild to severe gastric distress. A few causes have been proposed, including the substrate, eating the woody parts or older specimens, personal sensitivity, or simply not being cooked enough.

What is the difference between chicken of the woods and hen of the woods?

The name "chicken of the woods" commonly refers to edible mushroom varieties of the genus Laetiporus, while "hen of the woods" refers to the species Grifola frondosa. Hen of the woods grows mostly in the eastern parts of North America, and has brown to grey, tightly clustered, and wavy caps. By contrast, chicken of the woods grows large overlapping brackets that are bright orange or yellow.

When should I look for chicken of the woods?

Look for chicken of the woods in the Pacific Northwest from August to September.

What does chicken of the woods taste like?

Chicken of the woods has a faint lemony taste. It does not taste like chicken. However, it does take on flavour very well, so cook it with that in mind.

Where can I find chicken of the woods?

Varieties of chicken of the woods are found in many parts of the world. In British Columbia, you can find chicken of the woods growing from cuts or wounds in hardwood trees (like oaks or decorative plum) and conifers (like Douglas fir).

Can chicken of the woods kill you?

While some people have a bad reaction to eating chicken of the woods, it is unlikely that they will kill you. The only likely cause of fatality would be a particularly bad reaction, like an allergic one.

Should you boil chicken of the woods?

Boiling chicken of the woods is not necessary, but it is a good way to ensure that the mushroom is properly cooked through and as soft as it can be when eaten.

Summary

  • Chicken of the woods is a bright orange-yellow bracket fungi with a smooth surface

  • It is a highly sought after wild edible mushroom in British Columbia

  • It grows in large clusters on dead or decaying trees

  • Usually fruits in late August

  • Can cause gastric distress, so only eat a small portion to begin with

  • Cook well and add lots of moisture

harvested chicken of the woods mushrooms on a plate