Our Brunswick Cape lacks an edible frontyard garden, save for the asparagus bed I planted too shallow last spring and neglected to water and feed. But earlier this month, we still had the thrill of harvesting a large piece of food from the yard, a free gift that miraculously sprouted up overnight at the base of a scraggly street-front tree. The previous owner had told us to be on the lookout in wet, intermittent autumns.

Our daunting hen of the woods mushroom – it looked like a dense, fluffy, brain-sized pine cone – was easy to pluck. It was much harder to decide what to do with it. And whether it was fit to eat, since although wild and organic, it could be tainted by roadside runoff, or more likely, dog pee.

So we tread with our typical cautious indecision, which meant the fresh mushroom languished in the fridge. And what type of gnarled tree was our hen of the woods growing out of anyway? Mycologists tell us to first learn our trees. At first, I mistook it for an oak since in his photographic and culinary guide, “Edible and Medicinal Mushrooms of New England and Eastern Canada,” “Mushroom Maineiac” David Spahr says 98 percent of these Grifola frondosa polypore mushrooms sprout around older oaks and dead stumps. But our home’s previous owner reminded me the tree in question was a silver maple, which can also play host.

The mushroom (which are also called Ram’s Head or Sheepsheads) never materialized last fall – unless someone swiped it. Hen of the woods mushrooms are often cultivated and are commonly sold under their Japanese name, maitake, which means “dancing mushroom.”

And jump with delight my 3-year-old Theo and I did when we discovered the mushroom. Waiting for it to swell to peak ripeness, I wanted to post a “do not pick” sign, but feared I’d only encourage intrepid foragers, who wouldn’t be trespassing, since the tree is technically on the town-maintained border along our busy street. Impatient, I picked one of the nubs and then sought help to confirm its identity.

First, I brought my morsel to avid Brunswick forager Matt Loosigian.

“That’s hen of the woods, all right!” he exclaimed, confirming the mushroom by its earthy aroma, dark cauliflower florets, lack of gills and spongy white stem that peeled just like string cheese. But he refused my prized specimen. “It’s one of the most versatile, tasty mushrooms,” Loosigian said. “But sadly, I am sensitive to it.

“I’d eat a little nibble (cooked) before you feed it to your whole family,” he added.

Then, I gave my sample to Source’s Green Plate Special columnist Christine Burns Rudalevige. She brought it to a “Foraging for Fungi” event hosted by the Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust; the leader of the foray confirmed the hen of the woods ID. She added a caution: We should always consult multiple field-guides, do spore prints and use a magnifying hand lens to confirm the presence of tiny white pores near the edges of the hen of the woods’ caps. Fortunately, hen of the woods vaguely resembles only two other mushrooms, neither of which is poisonous, according to Spahr’s book.

My young, tight, grub-filled and withering sample might prove too difficult to clean, with its many nooks and crannies. So Theo and I waited, and in less than a week, our front yard mushroom swelled, like the golden harvest moon overhead, opening up and almost doubling to dinner plate size.

“Can I eat it?” Theo asked, entranced, as I cut the mushroom from the base of the oak tree.

Oh no. Maybe foraging with kids is a bad idea after all. We take care to stick to the black trumpets and chanterelles that we can identify for certain, well aware of the many toxic, even deadly mushrooms among the thousands of mostly non-edible ones that flourish in Maine. “Never touch a mushroom without Mommy,” I warned sternly, not for the first time. “Only eat the mushrooms I feed you.”

We carted our specimen off to our Crystal Spring Farm CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) pickup day, where farm apprentice Tom Barry weighed it for me. The two massive pieces clocked in at 4.88 pounds, surely the heaviest mushroom I’ve ever found, worth more than $50 to connoisseurs – and right there roadside in our front yard!

I asked if Tom wanted some to share with the farmers. He politely declined. In fact, Oyster Creek Mushroom Company in Damariscotta had that day delivered these very mushrooms, which looked like much smaller slices of our hen of the woods. They also were lighter colored; the pigments darken when exposed to direct sunlight. Crystal Spring members paid $207 for 18 weeks of ½- to ¾-pound brown bags of cultivated and foraged mushroom shares. And here our mushroom was free.

I brought it home at dinnertime.

“I’m scared of this mushroom – it was confirmed by whom?” my husband Dan said, keeping my impulses in check as usual. It was Taco Tuesday night, a weekly routine we’ve just started. He cooled my excitement to sauté mushroom morsels with Mexican spices for the taco filling. We had tacos stuffed with the lean grass-fed ground beef from Apple Creek Farm in Bowdoinham Dan preferred instead.

I gave a ripe hen of the woods slice to Christine, and more to my running buddy Rebecca Goldfine, who texted that her mycophilic, experienced forager mother Tina Fisher-Dark in West Bath “loves the mushie! She’s so excited!”

Meanwhile, I worried our neglected hen of the woods wedges were rotting after two days in the refrigerator. In a phone call, Spahr reassured me. He said “an excellent refrigerator life of close to two weeks” is one of hen of the woods’ great virtues. Spahr added that I could even freeze (preferably vacuum-sealed) the raw caps of florets for breaking off into stews all winter long.

But “sample a small amount first,” Spahr warned, and ask your doctor about any mushroom contraindications with medication. Hen of the woods is such a tasty mushroom, it’s tempting to overdo it. But excessive consumption can make you mildly ill, Spahr said, because the hefty amount of fiber in the mushrooms can cause gastrointestinal distress.

We can’t help but be paranoid the first time we serve a new wild mushroom to others. Brunswick Town Councilor Benet Pols (brother of Press Herald writer Mary Pols) recently posted on Facebook about strangers knocking on his door twice last week, asking to scrape off a tasty hen of the woods growing on his yard’s dying oak tree. “I wonder what my liability is if someone goes all ‘King of the Elephants’ after making some nasty chili with my oak tree fungus?” Pols posted, invoking Barbar of the popular French children’s books, who comes to head the elephant kingdom when its leader dies after eating a bad mushroom.

So I issued a disclaimer, inviting intrepid eaters to try my hen of the woods at their own risk when I sautéed a sample for participants in a yoga retreat I attended at a Maine Huts & Trails cabin last weekend. It was delicious, and somehow on our hike the next day I became the default foraging expert who people assumed could identify all mushroom specimens we encountered. I had held my breath that morning to make sure no partakers woke up with a stomachache – or worse. But we all survived, everyone felt great, and now a big hunk of our hen of the woods mushroom is stashed away in the freezer for us to enjoy come winter.

Laura McCandlish is a Brunswick-based food writer and radio producer. Follow her on Twitter @baltimoregon and read her blog at baltimoregon.com.

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