The changing natural world at our doorsteps | Illustration and text by Patterson Clark
October 16, 2012
Maitake: Chicken of the tree
Wet, chilly nights inspire the mildly parasitic root fungus of an oak tree to send out a fat cluster of spore-producing mushrooms, known as hen of the woods. In Japan, it's called maitake, or dancing mushroom, perhaps because of the effect that finding the mushroom would have on people who traded it for its weight in silver. A typical cluster of wild maitake weighs several pounds, but big ones can exceed 50 pounds.
Maitake is available at groceries and farmers markets, but some people harvest their own in the fall. What they can't eat in a week or two can be dried or frozen. [WARNING: Never harvest or eat mushrooms that haven't been verified as edible by an expert.]
Sauteed in butter on a skillet, hen of the woods tastes like . . . well . . . chicken. Packed with vitamins and minerals, the mushroom can also be crumbled and eaten raw in salads. Dried, it's added to soups or steeped for tea, which is described by Tom Volk, a University of Wisconsin mycologist, as "quasi-delicious."
That doesn't sound like a ringing endorsement for the tea, but taste is of secondary concern once one realizes the possible medicinal benefits of the fungus.
Although maitake has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for more than 2,000 years, Western science has only begun to examine its therapeutic value in the past 25 years.
Research has shown a variety of potential benefits: reducing hypertension, lowering harmful cholesterol and regulating blood-sugar and insulin levels. Extracts from the mushroom have been demonstrated to boost elements of the immune system that inhibit or kill certain malignant cancer cells.
Powerful potential from a tasty wood hen.
Sources: University of Wisconsin; Diabetes, Obesity and Metabolism; Experimental Biology and Medicine; Journal of Medicinal Food; Biological and Pharmaceutical Bulletin; Journal of Nutritional Science and Vitaminology; Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center