By Dianna Smith
Most known non-toxic polypores are either too tough, woody, mealy, small or tasteless to be considered suitable for eating. There are several polypores, however, that are generally plentiful in our North American mid-western, eastern and southeastern forests that are regarded as excellent edibles. All of these are relatively soft in texture when young, but they can get too tough if picked when mature and beginning to dry out. Novice collectors are often so delighted to have found a huge cache of edible polypores that they ignore signs of insect infestation, "over-ripeness" and molds.
Many edible polypores when collected, cleaned, and cut into steaks or strips of flesh, taste like chicken after being cooked. The color and texture are also similar to chicken. Biting into Laetiporus sulphureus, or Grifola frondosa elicits a meaty sensation. Chomping into a firm piece of any of these edibles can be especially satisfying. No wonder so many people who have chosen to forgo eating meat find fungi a perfect substitute. Curiously, in European mushroom field guides, the chicken mushroom is not recommended for eating. Why is this? Is their version of Laetiporus sulphureus a different species than ours or is there a cultural reason for not including it among their lists of edibles?
The following polypores are among the favorites of foragers of wild edible fungi: Albatrellus spp., Bondarzewia berkeleyi, Cerioporus squamosus, Fistulina hepatica, Grifola frondosa, Ischnoderma resinosum, Laetiporus cincinnatus and Laetiporus sulphureus, Meripilus sumsteinei, Polyporus umbellatus, Sparassis spp.
Albatrellus confluens (Alb. & Schwein.) Kotl. & Pouzar; Albatrellopsis confluens (Alb. & Schwein.) Teixeira (1993); Albatrellus ovinus (Schaeff.) Kotl. & Pouzar 1957; Laeticutis cristata (Schaeff.) Audet (2010); Albatrellus ellisii (Berk.) Pouzar (1966)
Species of Albatrellus might appear to be strangely formed boletes to novices, because they are terrestrial fungi with pores. However, unlike boletes, it is impossible to separate the pore layer from the comparatively leathery flesh of the fruiting body. Also, the caps of Albatrellus spp. are often irregularly-shaped rather than bun-shaped. Some species are solitary while others often have short off-center stems that are fused at the base to the stipes of other caps. Also, the pores are decurrent in that they continue down the stipe. In the east we have Laeticutis cristata (=Albatrellus cristatus), which is mycorrhizal primarily with broadleaf trees, and Albatrellus confluens (=Albatrellopsis confluens) and Albatrellus ovinus, both of which are associated with conifers. The latter two white to off-white species can be confused with one another, but all are edible provided they are very fresh and have been sufficiently cooked. Another beautiful species is Neoalbatrellus caeruleopous, a striking indigo blue polypore that can be found growing with eastern hemlock and broadleaf trees early in the fall season. Unfortunately, its unique color disappears during cooking.
Boletopsis grisea (Peck) Bondarsev & Singer 1941
Boletopsis grisea is another edible mycorrhizal fungus that can easily be confused with the terrestrial mycorrhizal polypores or even a bolete. It is a squat gray-capped species that grows from the ground and is associated with pines. It fruits in autumn. Its shallow pores are decurrent as they run down the tough stem. This mushroom is closely related to several toothed fungi in the genera Hydnellum, Phellodon and Sarcodon in the Bankeraceae family of the Thelporales order. Although edible, Boletopsis grisea is frequently bitter-tasting.
Bondarzewia berkeleyi (Fr.) Bondarsev & Singer 1941
This polypore is best when found in its earliest stage of growth, when the emerging fronds look more like knobby, swollen fists than the fan-shaped fronds they will become as they expand and mature. Although traditionally considered a polypore, Bondarzewia is genetically more closely related to other families in the Russulales. It just happens to have evolved a pored hymenium which becomes maze-like with age. In fact, like related species of Lactarius and Russula, it contains lactifers, specialized cells that secrete latex as secondary metabolites. Their purpose may be to discourage insects and other animals from eating their fruiting bodies. When young, the fruiting body will actually lactate when the pore surface is cut with a knife. It is most palatable when quite young, soft, and exuding its milk. However, even in this condition many may find the taste can be a test of one’s tolerance for bitterly hot. Once Bondarzewia berkeleyi reaches full size, the fronds will be tough, and emit an unpleasant odor.
Cerioporus squamosus (Huds.) Quelet (1886)
Opinions on the edibility of Cerioporus squamosus (Polyporus squamosus) vary considerably. For many, it is viewed as a poor consolation prize for unfortunate mushroom hunters unable to find morels. The polypore is a white rotter that tends to appear in the spring months on dying and dead angiosperms at the same time when morels are sprouting around or under the same trees. Occasionally it also fruits in the autumn. One common name is the "dryad's saddle," presumably because it resembles a saddle that Greek mythological dryads conceivably could mount. Another common name is "pheasant’s back," referring to the pattern of brown scales on the cap. Cerioporus squamosus grows laterally from hardwoods such as dead elms (a typical morel habitat). Many describe its smell and taste as similar to watermelon. Despite frequently being judged a second-class edible, properly prepared with other foraged edibles appearing in the mid to late spring season, it can be a refreshingly delicious experience. It is an excellent addition to a vegetarian dish that includes finely chopped up foraged greens, onions and a splash of soy sauce or lime.
Fistulina hepatica (Schaeff.) With. (1792)
Fistulina hepatica is another curious edible "polypore" that is not really a true polypore. This brown rotter is considered a cephaloid fungus and is actually more closely related to Schizophyllum commune and the gill forming agarics than it is to true polypores. Its common name, the "beefsteak mushroom," seems fairly descriptive of its lustrous if slightly hirsute (hairy) reddish-brown cap surface. Fistulina hepatica is an annual that grows from both living and dead oaks and other hardwoods from late summer through autumn. It looks remarkably like a juicy slab of raw liver or, when turned over so that the pores are visible, like a tongue. In Britain the expressive common name used for this fungus is "ox tongue." When young, the pore surface or hymenium is pinkish, but it pales to a creamy-white with age. The tubes are different than those of most polypores. They are of varying lengths and can be easily separated from each other. Like other edible polypores, Fistulina hepatica is best collected when young. It is one of a very few fungi that can be eaten either cooked or raw. Some mycophagists are drawn particularly to its slightly acidic or lemony taste.
Grifola frondosa (Dicks.) Gray (1821)
Grifola frondosa goes by many different common names: "hen of the woods," "ram’s head," "sheep’s head," and in Japan it is known as "maitake" or "dancing mushroom." It grows at the base of deciduous hardwoods, especially oak, and typically appears in late summer through early autumn. Often a new fruiting body will emerge from the same spot annually. This is because the fungus grows from a sclerotium, a tough underground source of energy. It is not uncommon to find large specimens weighing between 40 and 100 pounds. It is best prepared for cooking and eating when fairly young, before the elongated fan-shaped ‘leaves’ become tough due to age. Grifola frondosa is used medicinally in several Asian nations, particularly in Japan, where it is believed to have a positive effect on the immune systems of patients suffering from severe and difficult to treat illnesses such as cancers.
Ischnoderma resinosum (Schrad.) P. Karst. (1879)
Until Michael Kuo of mushroomexpert.com fame wrote about his first experience of trying Ischnoderma resinosum in his book 100 Edible Mushrooms (2007), most field guides routinely deemed this large annual polypore as inedible. Ischnoderma resinosum appears in autumn on dead wood of broad-leaved trees and conifers. The cap surface is brown and velvety, the growing margin is initially whitish, and the hymenium is cream with tiny pores that bruise brown with handling. As it expands, the polypore emits tiny beads of golden-colored liquid, and this is the reason it is commonly called the "resinous polypore." The fruiting body is quite soft, spongy and watery when growing and this is the time to cut off the outer edges in preparation for slow cooking. Sometimes the polypore emits a mild anise-like odor. As with all fungi eaten for the first time, eat a small portion of the cooked specimen and wait to see if it agrees with you before consuming more.
Laetiporus cincinnatus (Morgan) Burdsall, Banik & T.J. Volk 2001;
Laetiporus sulphureus (Bull.) Murrill (1920)
Two species of Laetiporus are known as "chicken mushroom" or "chicken of the woods": L. cincinnatus with white pores, and the more common L. sulphureus with sulphur-yellow pores. In the opinion of most who have sampled cooked L. cincinnatus, it tastes better and is a bit more delicate in texture than its more frequently found counterpart. Both species are brown rotters: they are cable of digesting the cellulose and hemicellulose in wood, but not the lignin component. Unlike L. sulphureus, L. cincinnatus tends to grow at the base of its host tree, rather than higher up on the trunk. The common name for these two species is perfect in that they both do taste a lot like poultry and are therefore a great meat substitute for anyone considering a vegetarian diet. However, as with all mushrooms, it is recommended that a small piece be cooked and eaten first to test your body’s ability to safely digest the sample, before consuming a larger portion. Some people get an unpleasant reaction after consuming these two that can include flushing, nausea, tingling and swollen lips.
Meripilus sumstinei (Murrill) M.J. Larsen & Lombard (1988)
This fungus at first glance can easily be mistaken for Bondarzewia berkeleyi. Look more carefully and you may notice a few blackish-brown streaks or spots either on the surface of the caps or underneath on the cream-colored pore surface. Handling it will cause the parts touched to gradually turn smoky black. This white rotter has large fan-shaped leaves attached to a tough central stalk. It is a parasite of living hardwoods, especially oaks, and a saprotroph of dead logs, stumps and buried roots. Meripilus sumstinei is also known as the "giant polypore" (Meripilus giganteus, a European name) and the "giant blackening polypore." It is edible, although there are a more than a few mycophagists who turn up their noses at the prospect of eating it. If you do cook it, be prepared to see the pan blacken. The taste is perfectly fine.
Polyporus umbellatus (Pers.) Fr. (1821)
Like Grifola frondosa, Polyporus umbellatus grows from a sclerotium deep in the ground at the base of broad-leaved trees, particularly oaks and beeches. Rather than having spoon to fan-shaped caps, this fungus often produces hundreds of small mushroom shaped umbilicate caps bearing a white pored surface. These are attached to a stem that is connected to the central branching stalk. The cap cuticle is patterned with brownish scales. This species is delicious, delicate, and rather uncommon and can appear as early as June in the northeast. Fried gently in butter; it goes well with meats.
Sparassis crispa (Wulfen) Fr. (1821); Sparassis spathularia (Schwein.) Fr. (1819);
Sparassis americana R.H. Petersen (2014)
The "cauliflower mushroom" is a favorite of mycophagists who search for it in late summer and early fall. There are several different species throughout the world. While there are some morphological differences between them, they all generally appear to look similar to brain corals, sea sponges or giant dahlia flowers. All have wavy whitish to pale yellowish ribbon-like branches that arise from a central base. One of them, Sparassis spathularia, has an outer brownish zone of color. Species of Sparassis can be found growing from the base of both broadleaved and coniferous trees, where they are parasites or saprotrophs on roots. They are best collected when they are still white. They will require careful cleaning since dirt, debris and pine needles are often enveloped in their folds. They dry and reconstitute well with water and are considered delicious in soups.