Chicken of the Woods and Witch’s Butter: Jokers of Kingdom Fungi

Reader Contribution by Lyndsay Dawson Mynatt
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As Boletus edulis is the mighty king and Cantharellus cibarius, the dainty queen of Kingdom Fungi, Chicken of the Woods and Witch’s Butter are brightly costumed jokers.  Parasites in the mushroom realm, these shelf mushrooms feed on trees, unlike saprophytic mushrooms that live on dead organic matter or mycorrhizal fungi that form symbiotic relationships with soil and roots.

Chicken of the Woods

Laetiporus sulphureus is a showcase find. Spiraling skyward on live trees or hiding on the under side of dead ones, Chicken of the Woods flaunts her neon feathers to all who pass by.

Key Features 

Chicken of the woods is easily distinguishable, growing laterally from trees, like a shelf, overlapped and often in great quantity. The cap is bright yellow-orange to orange, with brightly yellow tips that stands in stark contrast to the neutral colors of the forest.  Tiny pores are found on the underside of the cap. When older, this variety is medium-size to very large, tough, and faded in color.

Where and When to Find

Surprisingly, this species is not uncommon. Take a walk deep in the woods and you will probably see the flicker of a tail feather that leads to the whole flock. Chicken of the Woods grows on living and dead hardwoods and conifers, such as: eucalyptus, oak, plum, fir, hemlock, and spruce from late August to November. Harvest Chicken of the Woods when small, brightly colored, and tender. Otherwise, tree bark may be a softer, more palatable choice.

Identification of False Varieties

Although there are no false varieties or poisonous look-alikes, dietary distress has been linked to varieties found on eucalyptus trees and conifers. Instead of pocketing the mushroom field book, you’ll want to reference your tree guidebook for this one.

Cooking with Chicken of the Woods

Lemony, tofu-like, and hearty, Chicken of the Woods is a culinary treat. Like any other wild variety, cook thoroughly, and take advice from David Aurora, author of Mushrooms Demystified “if you eat and enjoy this mushroom…do not serve it to lawyers, landlords, employers, policemen, pit bull owners or others whose good will you cherish!” Only cook the tender tips, and be creative with recipes.  

Witch’s Butter

Slimy and weird, Tremella mesenterica, is the perfect Halloween treat. The first time I found Witch’s Butter, I stood transfixed by the gelatinous mass oozing from the tree branch. I was on a backpacking trip in the Hoh River Valley, in the Olympic Mountain Range in Washington State. Each step was a narrow avoidance of bright banana slugs and monstrous black slugs. Could this be yet another snail variety? No, to my amazement, I was in the presence of the strange species of Witch’s Butter.

Key Features

Aside from slimy and weird, a more technical description of Tremella mesenterica would be a gelatinous substance, yellow to orange. The shape can vary from bloblike to wrinkled and brainlike. It is one mass body, with no stalk present. The size is small to medium (1-3 inches) and it is more prevalent in moist areas.

Where and When to Find

Witch’s butter can be found year round, but thrives in a cooler environment in late fall and early winter. Like Chicken of the Woods, it is a common parasitic species, thriving on logs, stumps, or fallen branches. If the weather turns dry, it will shrivel up, only to swell after a good rain.

Identification of False Varieties 

Witch’s butter is a safe mushroom in the respect that no toxic lookalikes exist. However, Dacyrmyces palmatus, otherwise known as dissolving mushroom, is its doppelganger. This twin is considerably smaller, more orange, and has a whitish point of attachment to its host.


Edible? That’s your preference, but yes, you may butter your toast.

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