My Fair Fungus

A Santa Cruz Mountain rain brings forth Chicken-of-the-Woods and memories for a mountain biking mushroom hunter.

Story and photo by Paul Miller

Sept. 26, 2014—Some mushrooms glow a faint green. Others exude a reddish liquid. And some taste like chicken...or so the namer would have you think. As I mashed the pedals of my 32-16 single speed mountain bike up the trail through the oaks, I wondered if I would see any of my old fungal friends. The half inch of rain would surely coax them out of their soily hiding places! Nope, nothing yet. Not enough time had yet passed to allow the mycelium adequate time to send forth their bounty of fungal fruit.

Single speeds are perfect for hunting mushrooms. They force you to go slowly uphill, unless you are some sort of Armstrong-like climbing monster, which I am not. At 47, the beer after the ride has become as enjoyable as the journey. Not surprisingly, I have slowed while on two wheels, which is just as well, since it allows me a better chance to survey the fungal landscape around me as I pass.

As I forced the wheels below me to push the rest of me up the trail, I espied my quarry: Laetiporus gilbertsonii.

Was it always so named? No. According to (many thanks to Michael Wood and Fred Stevens), this fungus used to be called Laetiporus sulphureus. But, of course, now we know the true name to be not sulphureus, but gilbertsonii. Fortunately, we can all agree on the common name: The Sulfur Shelf fungus, or Chicken-of-the-Woods.

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My first encounter with Chicken-of-the-Woods came several years back, near Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, while riding—yes, of course—my mountain bike, and there it was in all its glory: a HUGE specimen of this orange and yellow creature, hulking low against the dead log. I simply had to have it. With a couple of sideways glances up and down the trail, I dislodged the specimen from its base and draped a thin jacket over it so that no one could rob me of my secret spot (many mushrooms, including this one, fruit from the same spot or log every year). I had to carry it in the crook of my arm, while the other held onto the handlebars. When I got home, I cleaned and prepared the monstrous beast for cooking.

I sauteed it in some olive oil with a bit of salt and pepper and presented it to my wife. "This is the best mushroom I have ever tasted!" she exclaimed.

"Does it taste like chicken?" replied I.

"No," she said, "more like french fries."

The next day, I had a terrible pain in my neck and shoulder. From then on, I carried a backpack during mushroom season.

My second experience with this edible fungus came at science camp a few years back. I had harvested a beautiful specimen that day, and was sharing the cooked result with the rest of the camp staff. One of the less cautious staff members, Randy, offered it to a couple of the girls in his trail group as they passed by our table. They tried a bit and liked the taste.
That night, one of the girls became horridly sick, and was throwing up. The camp nurse sent her home immediately. Only afterward did we figure out that this gorgeous species of "edible-with-caution" fungus can make certain people sick, especially if harvested from eucalyptus, not cooked thoroughly, or if you are simply allergic to it.

Today's Chicken-of-the-Woods is safe for now. Perhaps on my next bike ride I'll remember to bring my backpack.

And remember—never consume ANY wild fungus unless you are sure of its identity by first consulting an expert in fungus identification. If you'd like to learn more, visit California Fungi: Laetiporus gilbertsonii.

About The Author: Naturalist and mountain biker Paul Miller moved to Scotts Valley from Kansas in 1989 in search of adventure. "Rather than returning to my roots," he writes, "I stayed, picked up a mountain bike, and started learning about everything I saw. I latched on to anyone who would teach me anything in the out-of-doors." A high school biology teacher in San Jose, he lives in Scotts Valley with his wife, son and daughter.