Fall Foraging for Feathery Fungi

A cluster of hens at the base of an old oak tree. 

A cluster of hens at the base of an old oak tree. 

Even with schoolwork piling up I find myself heading out to the forest with basket in hand and mushrooms on my mind. Geology test? It can wait. What could possibly be more important than stumbling upon the motherload of all foraging finds? As the leaves crunch beneath my feet and the cold air enters my lungs the assignments and reports melt away. I've found the perfect study break in a perfect fall day in Connecticut. 

Foragers are scrambling to get their last fungal outings of the season in as winter's sharp breath starts to creep back into the Northeast. While the bright orange and red crowns of the changing hardwoods are enough to blow away most people, a select few are more interested in the base of these trees. This is where the culinary treasure of the fall grows: the hen of the woods. 

Grifola frondosa is more often than not found nestled up against the trunks of ancient oak trees. These large grey shelf fungi resemble a plump mother hen covering up her eggs, hence the name hen of the woods. With luck, and the right weather, one can stumble upon a tree housing a whole flock of hens at its base. Hens are loyal to their host trees, growing back reliably year after year. Starting at the end of September and going into November, foragers wander the woods squinting at the base of oak trees in an attempt to distinguish crisp leaves from the wavy caps of a hen in its prime. Sautéed, roasted, stewed, or creamed, the earthy flavor of these meaty fungi has both foragers and chefs yearning during the autumn season.

A 15lb Hen of the woods too big for the basket!

A 15lb Hen of the woods too big for the basket!

As I walk I notice some young honey mushrooms poking up in clusters along the path. Birds chirp overhead, warning about the coming cold. I continue past the mushrooms down some rock ledges that were carved out by the glaciers 15,000 years ago. After descending down the ledges, I cross a creek carrying away last night's rain. I glance up the hill and see my destination; even 30 yards away I can see that this oak is not alone. As I reach the massive tree the afternoon sun illuminates dense clusters of healthy hens. As I cut the fungi from their mycelial roots I feel a level of accomplishment that the books and tests cannot provide. 

This harvest marks the end of my 2015 season, and what a season it was! It's back to the books for my senior year, but I couldn't be more excited to continue Walker's Goods From The Woods after graduation. While my wicker basket collects dust on the top shelf of my closet, and snowfall covers the forest floor, I'll be busy planning for the upcoming foraging season. Up next: springtime morels, ramps and fiddleheads!