Maitake Mushrooms Growing in Popularity

by Roger Klinger

Living in these sacred and ancient mountains is a profound gift, as there is an energy and presence in the forests of the Blue Ridge that is so deeply reassuring, peaceful, healing and nurturing to body, mind and spirit.

One of the great treasures of living in the mountains is finding and enjoying the many dimensions of nature’s abundant bounty, and one of the greatest gifts I find in late summer and autumn is the maitake mushroom. Maitake (Grifola frondosa) is commonly called Hen of the Woods in America and Europe, as the layers upon layers of the fruiting mushroom body do resemble fluffed out or ruffled feathers of a hen. However, in Japan and China these perennial mushrooms are called “maitake” or the “dancing mushroom,” and throughout many parts of Asia they are revered and considered special treasures, as they are culinary delicacies and have also been used as essential medicine for centuries.

Maitake are growing in popularity in North America, as we rediscover the gifts of abundant wild foods. Our culture is shifting, and now across the country folks are waking up to the gifts that have always dwelled here. Maitake is a mushroom well worth learning about, as it is relatively easy to identify, and, like its cousin Chicken of the Woods, it often comes back in the same spot year after year. The name “dancing mushroom” arises from an old Japanese legend in which a group of Buddhist nuns and woodworkers met on a trail and discovered a huge maitake fruiting on the forest floor. They all danced to celebrate and rejoice in their newfound treasure.

Maitake belong to the Polypore family, as they have pores instead of gills, and although most species in this family are like solid wood and inedible, maitake and a few others in the family are soft, tender and scrumptious when fresh.

Maitake are native to our mountain hardwood forests and usually can be found feeding upon dead roots of oaks and elm trees. For many years while living in the Shenandoah valley, I was thrilled to discover an enormous maitake fruiting outside my house on an ancient, rotting, giant oak stump that I guarded over the years, as it was like having a hidden treasure in my woodland backyard. Maitake can reach gargantuan sizes (some supposedly surpassing 40 – 50 pounds) but I have never found any in the wild bigger than 6 to 8 pounds – but that’s still an amazing gift! Maitake can be cultivated, and you can order spawn or find kits online and from local mushroom growers in our region. When they are cultivated, they are easy to keep free of dirt and leaves and also much easier to harvest when perfectly fresh, as they decay and rot quite easily and become infested with maggots in the woods; so timing is critical when harvesting these mushrooms.

Maitake are not only delicious but exceptionally nutritious, as they are estimated to have 25 percent protein and are loaded with minerals like B-Vitamins, pantheonic acid, and exceptionally high potassium concentrations. Numerous studies have documented how maitake can reduce blood glucose levels in humans, and there is promising research being conducted to see how maitake medicine may help in the treatment of type 2 diabetes. Furthermore, maitake hold much promise, given their potential immune-boosting properties as well as capacities to create what scientists see as “programmed suicide of specific cancer cells.” These amazing mushrooms may assist us all in the future treatment of cancers and other diseases that plague humanity.

Western North Carolina forests contain an abundance of several of the most powerful medicinal mushrooms on the planet. These include reishi, lion’s mane, turkey tail and maitake. All four show enormous promise in current medical research and have been used as medicine by other cultures for centuries.

One thing is clear: This is without a doubt one of the most delicious wild mushrooms I have ever eaten and has been a favorite delicacy of mine for decades. I am aware that there are references indicating that a very small percentage of people may have some allergy to maitake but no more so than with any other wild or supermarket food. So always try a small sample first to make sure it agrees with you and, of course, make sure you are 100 percent sure of any mushroom you are harvesting from the wild!

At a recent dinner, we made a mixture of golden chanterelles and shiitakes from the freezer with a few maitake from the woods, sautéed everything in butter and garlic and served them over sourdough toast. This is as good as it gets and I am indeed a fortunate man to live in these beautiful mountains and call this place home!

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