by Barbora Batokova • March 13, 2021
I could not wait to find this famed polypore mushroom! I’ve never encountered it in the Czech Republic and I first heard about it when I got into mushroom hunting in Pennsylvania. I quickly learned this is one of the easiest mushrooms to identify. It is commonly known as chicken of the woods or sulphur shelf. It is so popular (and delicious) that even non-mycophiles know about it and some of the more courageous ones will even pick it for dinner.
I finally got lucky towards the end of one of my walks in Frick Park in June 2018. As I was leaving the park, I was reflecting on my finds (like the photogenic crown-tipped corals (Artomyces pyxidatus)), but I was a bit disappointed that I still haven’t found it! And that’s when I saw it: growing on the ground right off the dirt path. It was an unusual spot for it, as it seemed to grow terrestrially, and it looked a little different than the typical chicken of the woods. Now I know it was L. cincinnatus, a similar species, which is still considered a chicken of the woods (or COTW as some like to abbreviate), so I am considering that to be my first find.
Unfortunately I couldn’t pick it, because it’s not allowed to pick mushrooms in city parks, but if you find it in the wild, one mushroom can provide plenty of food for days. According to the Guinness World Records 2018, a specimen of Laetiporus sulphureus is the heaviest edible fungi ever found. Weighing 45 kilograms (100 lb), it was found in the New Forest, Hampshire, UK on October 15, 1990 by Giovanni Paba.1
- Taxonomic History
- Similar Species
- Edibility and Taste
- Medicinal Properties
- ID Table
The scientific name refers the bright colors and the underside of the polypore. Laet- means "pleasing" or "bright" or "abundant"2 and when combined with por- meaning "pores," you get “with bright pores.”3 The specific epithet sulphureus means "sulphur yellow."
It was first described in in 1789 as Boletus sulphureus by French mycologist Jean Baptiste François Pierre Bulliard and transferred to the Laetiporus genus by American mycologist William Murrill in 1920.4 That’s where the simplicity ends. Recent DNA studies bring us new knowledge, complicating the taxonomy. According to a 2017 study, despite Laetiporus being a monophyletic group (meaning it descended from a common evolutionary ancestor), there are six distinct groups of Laetiporus across the world representing at least seventeen different species.5 The true L. sulphureus may be restricted to regions east of the Rocky Mountains in North America, or, since it was first described in France, it could end up being a Europe-only species. For more discussion on the various species, see Tom Volk’s page.
Commonly known as Chicken of the Woods, or Sulphur Shelf, this bright yellow or orange mushroom is hard to miss in the woods. Edible when young, this particular specimen is past its prime for the plate. Specimen is from Pennsylvania.
This fungus is a forest pathogen that causes brown cubical heart rot, growing both as a parasite on standing tree trunks and as a saprobe, decomposing the fallen tree it just killed. It’s been playing this role in the forest lifecycle for a very long time. Laetiporus most likely originated in temperate zones in East Asia and North America about 20.16 million years ago.5 It grows in hardwood forests on a wide variety of host trees, such as oak, poplar, aspen, willow, locusts, and beech, as well as stone fruit trees and pear trees. Occasionally, it also grows from conifers such as yew (although that could be a different species). In Pennsylvania, it prefers oak trees, while in the Czech Republic, it often grows on fruit trees.
The underside of the mushroom has tiny pores, creating a yellow surface. This specimen is also too old to eat since the flesh has become too tough. Specimen is from Pennsylvania.
Growing in the summer and fall, the mushroom starts as bright yellow knob-shaped blob growing from a standing or fallen tree trunk, eventually transforming into a bright orange overlapping shelf-like structure that can be up to 90 cm across6 and up to 10 meters tall.8 As it matures, the edges often remain yellow, while the rest of the fruiting body turns orange. It can grow as a solitary, but more commonly there are compound clusters on the trunk. If the trunk has fallen and the mushroom grows on top of it, it forms beautiful rosettes rather than an overlapping shelves. Lacking a stem, the bright yellow or orange individual caps (or shelves) are fan shaped or semicircular with a smooth or finely wrinkled, suede-like texture. they can be up to 4 cm thick. If you squeeze the flesh, it will exude a transparent liquid. Over time, the bright color fades into white and the whole mushroom becomes brittle. The underside is made up of very tiny tubelike pores that create a yellow surface that do not bruise when damaged. They produce a white spore print.
Growing both on fallen or standing tree trunks, the mushroom prefers oak trees in Pennsylvania. The specimen on the left is perfect to harvest, while the specimen on the right is too mature. Specimens are from Pennsylvania.
This bracket fungus is found in Europe and North America and it is one of the most easily recognizable fungi out there. Depending on further DNA studies, the actual species might be restricted to either just Europe or the regions east of the Rocky Mountains in North America, depending on which species description will be selected.
Notice the different coloration a well as the ecology: L. cinccinatus is much lighter and more pinkish, while L. sulphureus stays true to its name with the bright sulphur yellow. Specimens are from Pennsylvania.
A seminal study from 2001, establishes 6 different Laetiporus species (plus one variation) in North America based on habitat, pore color, and distribution.7 Two of those species grow in the East and Midwest, two in the West, one in in the South and one in the Great Lakes region. Combine the location with some macromorphological characteristics and that is how you can most easily determine if you have found a true L. sulphureus. Also see Michael Kuo’s key to Laetiporus.
I am not aware of any similar species in Europe.
L. cincinnatus grows at the "butt" of the tree (or on the roots), usually oaks, and therefore forms rosettes rather than overlapping shelves. It is more cream-colored or pinkish rather than sulphur yellow and has white pores. It grows in the East and Midwest. The only other species that grows in the East and Midwest is L. suphureus.
L. conifericola grows on conifer wood in the West. It has yellow pores.
L. gilbertsonii grows on eucalyptus and oak trees in the West. It also has yellow pores. It is known to produce gastrointestinal upset if consumed.
L. huroniensis grows on conifer wood such as hemlock in the Great Lakes region. It also has yellow pores. It is known to produce gastrointestinal upset if consumed.
L. persicinus grows on both conifer and hardwood in the South. It has pinkish tan pores.
Finally, L. sulphureus can be potentially confused with Meripilus giganteus, which is never bright yellow or orange and therefore can only be confused with an old L. sulphureus. More importantly, the off-white pores of M. giganteus turn black when bruised.
Edibility and Taste
Compare the two fruiting bodies: on the left is a young specimen that is perfect for harvesting. You can even see some guttation. The flesh at this stage is soft and juicy. The the right is an old, almost white specimen. At this stage, the flesh is dry and brittle.
It is an excellent choice edible8 when young and the flesh is thick, soft and watery. As it matures, it becomes tougher and eventually chalky and crumbly, and not edible. This mushroom, like the majority of mushrooms, has to be cooked properly, as ingesting it raw produces gastrointestinal upset. However, some people are sensitive to this mushroom even when properly cooked, and some tingling of the lips has been reported.8 Many guides recommend avoiding alcohol around the time of eating this mushroom.
Laetiporus species growing on conifer or eucalyptus trees are known to produce severe adverse reactions, including vomiting and fever, and should be avoided. The taste and texture is reminiscent of chicken breast meat, making it a great substitute for meat.
On the left is a plate full of harvested L. sulphureus along with some Flammulina velutipes and Ischnoderma resinosum. On the right is L. sulphureus stir-fried with shrimp. (I’m working on the recipe!)
This mushroom is delish! It is one of my top five mushrooms to eat, after black trumpets, morels, and blushers. It is great for soups, sautés, and stir-fry’s. My favorite way to eat it is a stir-fry with shrimp and rice. The tougher parts also make a great mushroom stock or a cream of mushroom soup. Do not dehydrate this mushroom—the best way to preserve it is to cook and freeze it or preserve in glass jars.
There are no significant medicinal properties.
|Common Name||Chicken of the Woods, Sulphur Shelf|
||Distribution||North America, Europe|
Fan-shaped/semi-circular • Up to 90 cm across • Finely wrinkled, suede-like• Bright yellow/orange
|Hymenium||Pores • Yellow|
Thick, soft, juicy when young; brittle when old
|Odor & Taste||Not distinctive • Resembling chicken breast|
1 Guinness World Records 2018 by Guinness World Records, 2017.
2 Laetiporus sulphureus by Gary Emberger, Messiah College, 2008.
3 Laetiporus sulphureus (Bull.) Murrill - Chicken-of-the-Woods by Patt O’Reilly, First Nature, Retrieved March 2021.
4 Laetiporus sulphureus (Bull.) Murrill, Mycologia 12(1): 11 (1920), Index Fungorum, Retrieved March 2021.
5 Phylogeny, divergence time and historical biogeography of Laetiporus (Basidiomycota, Polyporales) by Jie Song & Bao-Kai Cui, BMC Evolutionary Biology, April 2020.
6 Laetiporus sulphureus by Michael Kuo, MushroomExpert.com, November 2017.
7 The Genus Laetiporus in North America by Harold H. Burdsall, Jr. and Mark T. Banik, Harvard Papers in Botany, Vol. 6, No. 1, 2001.
8 The Complete Mushroom Hunter by Gary Lincoff, Quarry Books, 2017.
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