Chicken of the Woods (Laetiporus sulphureus)

Chicken of the Woods is an edible mushroom that grows in a shelf-like arrangement of fans on dead and dying wood. The shelves of fiery-orange on the top and lemon-yellow on the underside are unmistakable, and there is no other fungus which looks quite like it. The beginning formation of Chicken of the Woods resembles a blob, almost like a large wad of yellow chewing gum. Some connoisseurs will only eat it during this stage of growth, as it is pleasantly succulent and most flavourful. In the days which follow, fans begin to form, reaching upward in a shelf-like placement. The sulphur-like smell is particularly noticeable when young,

Chicken of the Woods is a warm weather fruiter. In South Africa, summer through autumn when temperatures are high provide the best prospects.

A basket of fresh Chicken of the Woods (Laetiporus sulphureus). © Justin Williams

A small number of people who eat Chicken of the Woods may experience food poisoning type symptoms after consuming them. These symptoms can be attributed to either an allergic reaction to the fungus itself, or the dish was not cooked sufficiently. It’s important to know that Chicken of the Woods grows from several different introduced species of tree. There has long been debate about whether host tree affects edibility of Laetiporus. The short answer is that it does not, but there does seem to be a trend of more cases of allergic reaction when consuming from certain tree species. The true Chicken of the Woods mushroom, Laetiporus sulphureus, is not native to South Africa and can be found on English Oak (Quercus robur), Poplar (Populus canescens) and Sweet Chestnut (Castanea sativa). More cases of food poisoning have been reported when a lookalike Laetiporus has been consumed, such as L. conifericola and L. gilbertsonii, occuring on Pine (Pinus sp.) and Eucalyptus respectively.

Only young and fresh specimens should be gathered. So fresh, that at times you may encounter a sheet of water gush out when the fans are cut from the bark with a knife. When it comes to Chicken of the Woods, bigger is not always better, and the smaller, fresher fans provide the best eating. The vivid colouration should not have faded into a dull shade. If you stumble upon a specimen which has lightened in colour with age to grey, it is too old.

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