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Sulphur Surprise – Chicken of the Woods

It was one of those rare times when I ventured out looking for something in particular and actually found it! Summer isn’t a great season for mushroom hunting but it does have some interesting and choice variety (albeit small) of edible fungi.

Laetiporus sulphureusAt the edge of a long woodland path in a Leicestershire wood, fortune was on my side when I came across Chicken of the Woods or Sulphur Polypore (Laetiporus sulphureus). One of those bracket fungi that are instantly recognisable and a joy to behold.

What I found was a very modestly sized tier of Sulphur Polypore (a common name I seem to prefer). The upper (older) bracket, although still featuring lemon yellow pores on the underside was unfortunately losing it’s full potential of colour on the top side.

The younger sprouting shelves though were more succulent and rich in colour, soft and malleable to the touch.

Chicken of the Woods quite often grows in high layered formations around a metre or more high, with fanned brackets reaching up to 30-40cm or so in width. But like many fungi and mushrooms, finding it in the prime of it’s life is paramount, not only for identification reasons but (as in this case) for edibility.

Instantly recognisable features of this bracket fungus are the bright yellow and orange colours. The very small pores on the underside are a striking lemon yellow and the upper side (depending on age) is more orange yellow (often ridged and wrinkled in shape).

With age, the upper surface will lose it’s colour along with the rest of the fungus. Finding it young is a must. The flesh of the younger folds are often quite thick and succulent, ideal for your cooking pot. But even though it looks beautiful and enchanting this fungus is actually a parasite often found on dying oak trees and also on other trees such as sweet chestnut, poplar, willow and yew. But in this case – a cherry tree.

Edibility-wise this fungus doesn’t tick all the boxes for all people. Only the young , fresh parts are worth eating. It does have a strong taste which sometimes can be quite acidic and bitter. But it’s all in how you cook it and I’m not a notable chef (unless it’s in a curry of course) so I can offer no advise. It’s very much trial and error with this fungus. It’s up to you to see how you can make it a ‘chicken substitute’, and being a very ‘tofu-like’ flesh, it has great potential in the kitchen. You can save some for later too because it stores well in the freezer for a while.

Finally (and as always), be careful trying any mushroom/fungus (you understand is edible) for the first time, as their may be an unwelcome reaction. Only try a small portion at a time and give yourself a generous few hours to see how you go. I would recommend that Chicken of the Woods found on Yew trees to be avoided altogether. It has been known to cause severe gastric upset, dizziness and general nausea. That’s not what you want!

But apart from that warning – Happy hunting…

Chicken of the Woods fungus - Laetiporus sulphureus

The typical Orange/Yellow colours of the Sulphur Polypore (Chicken of the Woods). The thick white flesh of the younger brackets are best for cooking.

Sulphur Polypore

Another example of the fungus; layered in the usual way but more fleshy and rounded.

QUICK ID TABLE: CHICKEN OF THE WOODS / SULPHUR POLYPORE Laetiporus sulphureus

FRUITING BODY

10 – 40cm accross. Fan shaped / Semi-circular. Irregular margin. In large tierd groups. Yellow/Orange. Thick and fleshy. Turns straw/white coloured with age. Uneven upper surface – usually lumpy-like.

PORES / TUBES / SPORE PRINT

Very tiny pores (circular or ovate). Sulphur yellow in colour.

Spore Print: White (see how to take a spore print here).

HABITAT / SEASON

On deciduous trees. Common on Oak, Cherry, Poplar and Willow. Thoes found on Yew known to be poisonous. Late spring to autumn.

EDIBILITY

Edible when young and fresh. Best cooking tips from Germany & North America.

The Genus POLYPORUS (Polypores): Characteristics to look out for:

• Nearly all are bracket fungi, but a few are with typical cap and stem but with pores instead of gills underside.

• Usually tough or hard and woody. Some softer and edible.

• Many are perennial or annual.

Tree slippers – The Giant Polypore

Walking along a woodland path, the adjacent foliage was heavily overgrown. But something still caught the corner of my eye at the base of a large oak tree. At first, I thought people had left some rubbish, considering the size, but as I removed the overgrowth (receiving many lovely nettle stings!) the picture became clearer.

Meripilus giganteusThis was indeed a Giant Polypore (Meripilus giganteus or Polyporus giganteus) occupying a good half of the tree’s circumference. Older parts on one side and younger ‘new’ born’ specimens emerging on the other.

A common mistake would be to confuse this bracket fungus with Hen of the Woods (Grifola frondosa) but on comparing notes, you’ll realise that these things are just too damn big! And the ones featured here will grow bigger still.

The fruiting bodies of this Polypore branch out in clumps. Each clump shares the same short and chunky stem, at the end of which are numerous fan-shaped caps ranging in size from 40 – 90cm in diametre, but are relatively thin compared to this width. They’re quite tough (but flexible) to prize away from the central stem, so a good sharp knife is in order!

Apart from their large size, the caps have reliable and distinctive markings. Their light brown ‘overall’ colour (which darkens with age) display several concentric, light/dark zones. On closer inspection you’ll see a layer of very fine brown scales. The edges are fanned or rosette-like and slightly grooved.

The Giant Polypore might not be as tasty as Chicken of the Woods but it is edible. It does smell quite nice but can taste quite bitter. But just like the Beefsteak Fungus, there maybe be a cooking preparation method to make this taste alot better. I haven’t tried myself, but it’s worth a go I think.

Keep a look out for these beauties this autumn. They can be found at the base of (mainly) beech or oak trees (or nearby, emerging from the underground roots) and sometimes on stumps. If you do take some samples you’ll notice after time the pores on the underside turn blackish where touched or bruised. Although unsightly, I don’t believe this affects the final taste, if prepared like the Fistulina hepatica for example.

Polyporus giganteus. Giant Polypore

The Giant Polypore – Older specimens appear darker brown (top) while younger ones are a lighter shade (bottom). Note the pure white pores underneath (middle) showing a much younger specimen on the right.

QUICK ID TABLE: GIANT POLYPORE Meripilus giganteus / Polyporus giganteus

FRUITING BODY

50-80cm across. Made up of rosette formations with short stems fusing at a common base. Each of the fan shaped caps range from 10-30cm across / 1-2cm thick. Upper surface concentrically zoned light and darker brown. Covered in fine brown scales; radially grooved. Flesh is white, soft and fibrous.

STEM

See above.

PORES / SPORE PRINT

Late in forming; 3-4mm, sub circular shape. White(ish) bruising blackish.
Spore Print: White (see how to take a spore print here).

HABITAT / SEASON

At the base of deciduous trees or stumps; mainly beech or oak. Can grow from roots of tree away from trunk appearing indepent of tree.

EDIBILITY

Edible. Can be bitter.

The Genus POLYPORUS & Related (Polypores etc): Characteristics to look out for:

• Nearly all are bracket fungi, but a few are with typical cap and stem but with pores instead of gills underside.
• Usually tough or hard and woody. Some are softer and edible.
• Many are perennial or annual
.

Dry Saddle for the nymph! Dryads Saddle

Well – it’s been the driest spring we’ve had since records began! That probably explains why I haven’t had much luck in finding some good edible spring mushrooms up for offer! But I did stumble across some large edible beauties today – unfortunately I found them too late. They were past their prime and had dried out quite a bit due to old age and the dry weather. Curses!

Large Polypore mushroomEven in this condition, they were still good examples of Dryads Saddle (Cerioporus squamosus / Polyporus squamosus) – a polypore mushroom which can grow quite large indeed as you can see from the photos. All polypores (bracket fungus growing on trees) have ‘pores’ instead of gills where the spores disperse from.

This species is a parasite (and/or Saprotroph which feeds off decaying matter) on deciduous trees such as elm, beech and sycamore causing severe ‘white rot’. They burst into life in late spring/early summer and can be found on stumps as well as living trees growing in clusters or singularly. Although edible, only young specimens are worth taking and don’t really taste that great anyway. Which is a shame because of their ample size even when younger.

Apart from it’s large dimensions (cap up to 60cm accross and stem up to 7cm) other identifiable characteristics are the brown scales which are spread in a semicircular pattern accross the ochre-yellow cap, the flesh of which is relatively thin. As shown in these pictures, once past it’s prime, the mushroom soon deteriorates, becoming very dry (especially helped along by this hot weather!) and infested with insects. Urgh! But nevertheless they are a great site to behold when in a large group.

There are many old folklore stories behind mushrooms describing how they acquired their common names (sometimes several stories from several countries), and this one does not disappoint in originality. The ‘Saddle’ element derives from the shape of the cap which can sometimes resemble a horses saddle. The word Dryad means ‘Tree nymph’ in Greek mythology. I find myself imagining what the Dryads horse looks like!

Cerioporus squamosus

Drying up! Once past their prime, These polypores soon dry up and waste away. How the mighty have fallen!

In contrast to these older specimens, take a look at this very young specimen I found only a few weeks later. This little beauty is only 2 inches long. I left it to grow and I’m guessing it won’t grow that large anyway due to the fact there were older, dying fruit bodies near by – around 4-6 inches in size.

Dryads Saddle - Young

A young Dryads Saddle.

See the extra ID notes below in helping identify this fine mushroom, notably how the stem is blackish towards the base. Hope you find some too soon, this is the season…

ID Notes - Dryads Saddle (Polyporus squamosus)

The Genus POLYPORUS & Related: Characteristics to look out for:

• Nearly all are bracket fungi, but a few are with typical cap and stem but with pores instead of gills underside.
• Usually tough or hard and woody. Some are softer and edible.
• Many are perennial or annual
.

Rare, Medium or Well Done? – Beef Steak Fungus

It’s a comical sight and nice surprise when you first come across an oak tree sticking it’s pinky red tongue out at you! It’s happened to me a few times and I seem to be getting use to it.

This is the common Beef Steak Fungus (Fistulina hepatica) found during late summer and autumn. It’s a parasitic species usually found at the base of oak trees and sometimes horse chestnut. It definitely looks freaky when younger, it’s fleshy protrusion almost exactly mimicking the tongue of an Ox!

The colour initially is pinkish then getting redder and finally brown with age. You must get touchy-feely with a younger specimen because it has a spooky ‘flesh’ like feel, maybe even a little rubbery. The surface even has the warty tongue taste buds on! The pale yellow pores on the underside which age red-brown sometimes leak a blood-red juice. This also adds to the overall wierdness of this critter. Marvellous stuff.

The common ‘Beef Steak’ definition naturally refers to the flesh which resembles raw steak. And I know what your asking, and the answer is no! It doesn’t taste like beef steak. It is edible though but can be quite bitter (younger ones more so). You can simmer it or soak it in milk for a day to help reduce this bitterness. I intend to try it very soon and will hopefully mention in a later post. There is no worry in identification. There’s nothing out there that even gets close to resembling our ‘beefy’!

Beef Steak Fungus (Fistulina hepatica)

A young example of a Beef Steak Fungus resembling a pink-red tongue!

One last snippet of trivia for you – this fungus can cause ‘brown rot’ in the infected tree, which in turn makes for a very sought after kind of timber. In the furniture industry it is named ‘brown oak’ and is in much demand. It is richer brown in colour to normal uninfected oak. Sometimes only slightly infected trees can create a ‘striped’ pattern in the wood – a mixture of light and dark.

The photos shown above are of a young individual. All the other shots I have of previous encounters have been munched to pieces by the local, and very hungry insect mobs. The older the fungus gets, the tougher the consistency. Colour also changes from an orange-red through to a purple-brown.

Older Beef Steak Fungus

As the Red flesh of the Beef Steak Fungus grows older it will be deeper red in colour and may lose some of it’s surface texture due to weather and insect/animal interference.

Jelly and Ice (no cream) – Jelly Ear or Jews Ear

I’m still out there in the freezing cold, treading on the ice crusted mud and woodland grass in search of any of those winter treats still hanging around on the old dead wood. And I also need a change from mince pies, turkey, wine etc… and pretend I’m losing a few pounds in the process.

I was oJelley Ear Fungus on the side of a treeut in one of the National Forest woods, closest to where I live. It had to be close as I was on the motorbike and had to make the journey short. After all, it was ‘zero’ degrees celcius!

Initially I was looking for any signs of Oyster mushrooms. I know they’re around pretty much all year, but I need to find out more of where that is!

Instead I stumbled across (nearly literally) a modest collection of Jelly Ear (Auricularia auricula-judae) or Jew’s Ear. They are genuinely funky in appearance, and absolutely great to touch, almost like a mixture between silk and rubber! However, it was so cold that some had completely frozen solid with some only half frozen. I quickly took some snaps to show the ice and ear together.

They’re around most of the year and grow on living and dead wood, mainly elder but also with beech and sycamore.

They are edible but not full of flavour. I didn’t pick any of them at this time, but I’m interested to know if anyone has any interesting recipes to use with them. I believe they are used extensively in Chinese cooking – broths and soups etc. generally to add substance rather than for added taste.

Update Feb 2014:
Since I received a recent comment from a blog follower mentioning the health benefits of this particular fungus, I had to check it out. It’s fascinating to see how many vitamins and minerals it possesses. It really is a super food! To see the health benefits of the Jelly Ear, click here.

Jelly Ear Fungas

Jelly Ear feeling the ice cold of January