The mushroom grows throughout most of the US at the bases of deciduous trees, living or dead, often over and over at the same time every year, in the fall. It’s very common, although easy to overlook due to its camouflage colors.
I lived in a residential neighborhood in Queens, NYC. One hen has been coming up from an oak tree across the street from my apartment building, in front of a school, since 1983. Another appears on an ornamental crab apple tree on my building's front lawn every year, and several come up around another oak tree one block away. And this is an expensive mushroom to buy.
These mushrooms can be large. 3-4 lbs. per mushroom is usual, but I found one in nearby Forest Park that weighed 50 lbs. on Halloween of 1982 (not a date you forget, especially after trying to haul such a mass home by bicycle).
And at the start of a field walk in Inwood Hill Park in Manhattan, Big Bill, a veteran of my tours who already knew all the species I normally teach, wandered off by himself. After half an hour, I heard him blowing his whistle in sets of two, which means "come over." I returned the signal. When we met, he had brought a 5 lb. hen-of-the-woods for the group.
The eager participants grabbed at the chunks as quickly as I could slice them with my pocket knife. But after they were gone, I realized I hadn't saved any for Bill. I apologized, Bill accepted, and he wandered off again.
An hour later, after more whistling, we reunited again. This time, Bill had a 10-lb. hen-of-the-woods. But after distributing the slices again, I realized I'd made the same mistake again, and Bill had none of his own mushroom.
Feeling even dumber, I apologized again. Bill accepted and departed, and the tour continued.
Just as the tour was ending, we heard Bill's whistle once again. This time, he had a 30-lb. mushroom. And when I partitioned it off, I made sure to leave a huge chunk for Bill.
But he declined. As a precaution, he had stuffed his huge backpack with as much of the much larger mushroom as would fit before he brought the remainder to me!
Hen-of-the-woods (sold in health food stores under its Japanese name, Maitake, to fight cancer and strengthen the immune system) has a deep, rich flavor and chewy texture. The only downside is that it can be a pain to clean unless it’s very fresh. Grit gets ingrained in the dozens of little caps, and you have to cut it away with a paring knife.
Prepare this flavorful fungus any way you likesautéed, simmered in soups, marinated, baked, or even pickled. It cooks in 15 to 20 minutes.