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"That one makes a fine meal," a mushroom expert told us while we were walking through the woods. We enjoy the occasional nature walk and have played around with foraging just a little bit, though nothing much more adventurous than dandelions and apples. I've always been weary of picking wild mushrooms however, as they're notoriously difficult to differentiate to the untrained eye and even to the supposedly trained eye. A self-proclaimed mushroom connoisseur from my home town died after eating the wrong fungus. Nuff said, really.
Still, I was intrigued. The mushroom in question grows at the base of trees, and it's especially fond of oak trees. It's called Grifola Frondosa, and is additionally known as hen-of-the-woods, ram's head, and sheep's head among English speakers. Its Japanese name, maitake, is also gaining popularity. Maitake means "dancing mushroom". Looking at it, you can see why. Its elegant lines look like a dance, though some say this is the dancing mushroom because someone who finds it in the woods ought to do a happy dance.
What's So Special About Maitake?
Maitake, or whatever other name you prefer to call this fungus by, is used in Traditional Asian Medicine to boost the immune system. If you are a non-skeptical alternative health nut, you might believe it's good for next to everything that you be wrong with you. Some say the hen-of-the-woods can be used to prevent cancer, contribute to treating cancer, and lessen the side effects of chemotherapy. It's also said to regulate blood pressure and blood sugar levels, help prevent and heal flu, colds, herpes outbreaks, uterine fibroids, and allergies. Indeed, some alternative health blogs say that maitake can be useful as (a part of) HIV treatment. Grifola Frondosa has been promoted as a weight-loss aid as well.
Small-scale studies have been conducted into the anti-cancer properties of this mushroom, but consumers should be cautious and skeptical. The US Food And Drug Administration (FDA) has warned consumers to stay away from unregulated products that claim to help cure cancer, and has repeatedly sent out warning letters to companies selling maitake supplements while also claiming they could help cure cancer and other serious diseases.
The mushroom is, however, rich in vitamins and minerals. It contains potassium, calcium, magnesium, vitamins B2, D2 and niacin, dietary fiber, and amino acids. While the presence of maitake is bad news for the tree on which it grows, it certainly has nutritional benefits that should make many people happy to include it in their diets. Grifola Frondosa isn't just pretty and healthy either. It's tasty and versatile — and if those are not among the most important attributes of a food, I don't know what would be.
If the mushroom grows on a tree near you — and that may well be the case — you may decide to get adventurous and harvest it for your own use. Its distinctive features make doing so relatively low-risk, in other words there aren't any highly poisonous mushrooms that look just like maitake.
Those who are scared of picking wild mushrooms may be happy to hear that maitake is commercially grown as well, allowing you to enjoy its taste and nutritious benefits without being scared you picked the wrong thing.