Q. Is chicken-of-the-woods an animal, vegetable or mineral?
A. None of the above, it is a mushroom.
Chicken-of-the-woods (Laetiporus sulphureus, formerly Polyporus sulphureus) is a beautiful fungus* in both form and color, and in the mystery that it evokes. To come upon this bracket mushroom in late summer or fall and watch it grow, glowing with color, and then fade and dry and crumble at autumn’s end, is to witness unintended magic. It is much like watching the intentional — but not totally predictable — creation of an artisan’s blown glass sculpture.
The particular mushroom inspiring this writing piece grows on the stump of an old tree on Corn Neck Road. It is a fungus that I have seen on this tree many times over the past 30 years; it was first brought to my attention by a friend and mentor who taught me that it was edible and delicious, and this year safeguarded from the skillet by its nearest neighbor, who is a steward for its beauty and for the opportunity of admiration and conversation.
Mushrooms have mystique: they can be edible, poisonous, and medicinal. And in the case of this Corn Neck beauty it conjured past memories, catalyzed communion between friends, and alas, was likely the hex on the old tree. Also called chicken mushroom, this species is found throughout eastern North America and is known as a “heart rot” fungus. Usually by the time the fruiting body of the mushroom appears — long past an infestation of the minute mycelium of the mushroom throughout a tree’s crevices leading to the heart wood — the tree’s health, if it’s still living, has already been severely jeopardized.
As we enter this season of winter solstice, it is fun to think of magic and mystery and myth, and although mushrooms may not be the first thought that comes to mind, there are some traditions of thought connecting celebratory pine trees, elves and even Santa with red and white Amanita mushrooms. And even more wondrous, consider this season’s fantastic — and long reigning — night sky: directly overhead is the constellation Perseus, an ancient mushroom hero.
Consider this excerpt from Constantine J. Alexopoulos’s book “Introductory Mycology”:
“Three and one-half millennia ago, so the legend goes, the Greek hero Perseus, in fulfillment of an oracle, accidentally killed his grandfather Acrisius, whom he was to succeed on the throne of Argos. Then, according to Pausanias, ‘When Perseus returned to Argos, ashamed of the notoriety of the homicide, he persuaded Megapenthes, son of Proetus, to change kingdoms with him. So when he had received the kingdom of Proetus he founded Mycenae, because there the cap (mykes) of his scabbard had fallen off, and he regarded this as a sign to found a city. I have also heard that being thirsty he chanced to take up a mushroom (mykes) and that water flowing from it he drank, and being pleased gave the place the name of Mycenae.’
“Thus, one of the greatest civilizations that man has developed — the Mycenean — may have been named for a legendary mushroom.”
The following events and Ocean View Foundation programs will provide opportunities to enjoy the magical, the mythical and the warmth of the island’s season of winter solstice natural history observations.
Go to the Ocean View Foundation Face Book page to see more photos of Chicken-in-the-woods and other Block Island fungi.
Dec. 4 and 18 at 9 a.m: Crazy-as-a-Coot Bird Walk, call 401-595-7055 for location
Dec. 13: New Mykes Moon
Dec. 13 at 7 p.m.: Night Sky Viewing under the Geminids and Perseus, Hodge Preserve
Dec. 21 at 6:12 a.m.: Winter Solstice
Dec. 26 at 9 a.m.: Community Bird Census. Meet at Sachem Pond
* Fungi exist in several forms: mushrooms and puffballs, molds and mildews, rusts and smuts, and yeasts. None contain chlorophyll, the agent of photosynthesis, and are therefore not plants. The study of fungi, mycology, is complex, diverse and fascinating, but beyond the scope of an Ocean Views column.
The following resources were consulted while writing this piece: The Mushroom Handbook, Louis C.C. Krieger, 1967; Introductory Mycology, Constantine Alexopoulos, 1962; http://www.mushroomexpert.com/laetiporus_sulphureus.html; http://mushroom-collecting.com/mushroomchickens.html; http://www.atlanteanconspiracy.com/2008/09/mushroom-mythologies.html