Sulfur Shelf Spotted!

Husband and I were out for a walk in Santiago Park, a wildlife and watershed center in Orange County. We had gone about a mile in our loop, admiring the greenery and flowers. I had just started lamenting that low rainfall makes the valleys of southern California poor mushrooms spots… when suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted this fella!

Laetiporus sulphureus is commonly known as Sulfur Shelf, Chicken Mushroom, or Chicken of the Woods. It is a bright orange, fleshy, plump shelf fungus with a mouth watering, buttery smell. Good thing it’s edible – and tasty, too! The large clusters make it a foraging treasure trove. When I gazed upon this trophy, I told Husband, “If I were foraging, that would be dinner for the week.”

But I wasn’t foraging, so we didn’t have ‘chicken’ sandwiches and sulfur omelettes this week. Why not?

While Sulfur Shelf is considered one of the “foolproof” mushroom varieties – without any dangerous, or really, any lookalikes – there are caveats. Don’t eat it raw, for one thing; like feathered chicken, this one also needs to be cooked. Also, some mycology authorities consider sulfur shelf growing on conifers more likely to cause illness. The wetland park in Orange County, California doesn’t have a lot of conifers, but that wasn’t my major concern anyway. My issue has to do with foraging in urban environments.

Santiago Park is a wetland preserve, but it’s right next to a road. That means cars are constantly driving past, road work may occur there, and there could be pesticides or herbicides in use on the grass strips near the street. Mushrooms are super good at concentrating poisons and heavy metals, so I’m loath to harvest edible fungi from anywhere that uses lawn chemicals and the like. 

Husband was also concerned that, since it’s a park with a nature center, folks might want to bring their kids to see the big, pretty mushroom on the tree. We certainly don’t want to reduce the visibility of cool fungi!

But even if we weren’t harvesting for lunch, you can bet I took a lot of pictures – and maybe a weensy sample for my personal collection.

Behold the bright, buttery pore surface characteristic of Sulfur Shelf. And not a bug in sight!

As we finished up our loop, I inhaled deeply of that buttery chicken scent and made Husband do the same. He was surprised how firm and fleshy the shelf is. A young Chicken of the Woods has a chicken breast texture, though the older it gets, the tougher it becomes. In Mushrooms Demystified, mycologist David Arora suggests trimming off the outermost margin of a mature Sulfur Shelf, which will still have that juicy quality.


Fun fact: The last time I stumbled on a Sulfur Shelf of this size was in the New York Botanical Gardens, and wouldn’t you know it, I was wearing the same shirt!

I guess this is my lucky sulfur shelf shirt now.

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