My heart sank as I reached the crest of the hill to find my most faithful maitake (hen of the woods) tree standing naked, unadorned. After a summer plagued by drought, I had grown accustomed to such disappointment. But the successful hunter is an eternal optimist, always seeing potential in every fiber of the forest. We’d finally gotten a half-inch of rain, and it couldn’t hurt to get down on my hands and knees and scour for signs of hen.
If you’re not familiar with maitake, it is an exquisitely edible and medicinal mushroom with a short, but often overwhelmingly abundant season. One good hen can weigh several pounds; one good oak can host several (I’ve seen up to seven) hens. No wonder the mycophilic Japanese named it maitake, the dancing mushroom – find a good flush of Grifola frondosa and you’ll surely be dancing too!
But I’m not dancing yet – just crawling – and feeling rather pathetic when I suddenly spot a minuscule gray, fleshy nub, a pinprick of a mushroom dwarfed by the acorns strewn about the oak duff. It seems promising, cool to the touch and exuding tiny droplets of moisture, but it is too diminutive to know for sure. I make a mental note to return in a few days as I circle around to the other side of the tree, studying the soil with newfound confidence. With my eyes on, I notice what is undeniably a baby hen – about the size of a racquetball but already exhibiting the tight, brain-like appearance of a miniature maitake. Instantly I am in a better mood, and I bid farewell to the old oak, knowing I’ll be back in several days.
It’s my lunch break and I don’t have time to linger, so I take the shortest route home. I cut off-trail through mixed hardwoods and take off sprinting, struggling to refrain from inspecting each and every oak tree.
But my mushroom mind will not let the hunt rest, and I stop to circle a grandfather oak with a basal scar, looking like prime maitake territory. I see nothing from the downhill side of the tree, but I stick my toes into the soil and crane my neck around the uphill side of the giant. Before I can even process what I have seen, I have already reflexively yelped out for joy. There is a massive, mature hen, just inches from my face. If I had been any closer, it would have been in my mouth.
Hens are here, and there is hardly a mushroom so cherished in this mycophilic household sauteed, grilled, braised, or pickled. If you do well in the next couple weeks, you may find a harvest to hold you through the New England winter.