Maitake mushrooms (Grifola frondosa) are an edible fungi species that grow in large fruiting rosette-like clusters typically at the base of trees. Often referred to as "hen of the woods", they are a plump and full-bodied fungus sometimes weighing up to 40-50 pounds by the end of the growing season.
The fresh steamed or sauteed mushrooms are a savory edible mushroom variation with a semi-firm delicate texture, rich earthy taste and a tempura shrimp-like flavor. They are utilized by gourmet chefs around the world but are an especially common staple ingredient in Japanese cuisine.
While they are traditionally used for their exceptional taste qualities, this particular species is also found to be quite medicinal in nature. It is consequently becoming increasingly more well-known for its potent array of specific "myco-nutrients" that are reported to offer added therapeutic value when consumed.
Primarily growing wild in Japan as well as moderate climate zones of China, Europe, Canada and Northeastern United States, Grifola frondosa is a soft-fleshed polypore mushroom identifiable by its gray-brown, wavy overlapping caps, which are assembled in large clusters coming off a single branched stem.
This variety, unlike other rounded types, is mostly composed of curled, irregular, sometimes spoon or fan-shaped caps with a white underside. The fresh fungi have tender flexible pieces that are easily separated and stripped apart revealing a feathery texture.
Native to North America, China and mountainous regions of Northeastern Japan, the name "maitake" comes from the Japanese language, which means 舞茸 "dancing mushroom." This description is thought to originate from the way the ruffled-looking mushroom appears to move or "dance" and also, according to Japanese legend, refers to how those who found this prolific natural species tree would dance in celebration. (Source)
While maitake mushrooms grow wild, they are also very easy to cultivate. In the past, China,
Japan and Korea were the leading commercial cultivators, mostly exporting the dried variety.
In recent times, however, with the growing use and expansion of the medicinal mushroom "industry", growing and selling fresh maitake is becoming more popular. In the U.S., maitake can frequently be found next to other types in many produce sections and local farmers markets, including shiitake, chanterelle and oyster mushrooms.
Sometimes also called "sheeps head", or in Italy is known as "signorina", is a perennial mushroom that often grows wild in robust patches, usually at the base of certain trees, especially oak, beech or elm. It is harvested in the late summer and early fall when the fruiting body is full yet still soft and tender.
Often reappearing in the same place year after year, a mature mushroom is typically about 1/2-1 feet (or 15-40 centimeters) wide. In ideal conditions, maitake can grow up to 3 feet (or 91 centimeters) and weight more than 100 pounds, earning it the title "king of mushrooms".
Grifola frondosa is also an easily cultivated species and can be grown indoors on a substrate medium. When in a controlled environment they continue to flush and produce throughout the year. These versions do not grow as big of course, but they can still be quite fruitful and used like shiitake mushrooms in stews, soups, sautés, grains or as an ingredient in numerous recipes.
Like many of the medicinal mushrooms, Grifola frondosa contains beta-glucan polysaccharides, which can act as dietary nutraceuticals with a immune-modulating influence. ß-glucans are sometimes called "biological response modifiers" because of their capacity to stimulate immune responses.
One maitake-specific beta-glucan that
has been extensively researched in recent times is a main active proteoglucan compound known as "D-fraction". Maitake's D-fraction is comprised of unique protein bound
beta-glucans known as beta-1,3 and beta 1,6 (or ß-1,3/1,6 glucan) which have been identified in research to be supportive to immune system functioning.
Some supplement manufacturers especially concentrate the D-fraction compound using standardized extracts of the fruiting body. Depending on the strength, these can contain between 22mg to 120mg D-fraction per serving, at a standard strength or professional strength dose amounts.
In one study, it was shown that medicinal mushrooms like Grifola frondosa have increased uptake and health benefits when consumed with a natural vitamin C source. Some mushroom products for this reason include small amounts of vitamin C in their extracts.
Hen of the woods has been found in several studies to support the appropriate production of insulin, via an alpha-glucosidase inhibitor, which helps to reduce blood glucose levels by preventing the digestion of carbohydrates. This could be potentially beneficial for those with type 2 diabetes. It is also believed that there are other bioactive substances present in the mushroom that can additionally help alleviate diabetic symptoms, though further research is required.
Some studies suggest that maitake mushrooms, acting as a natural anti-inflammatory, help to prevent age-related elevation of blood pressure, via the renin-angiotensin system, the hormonal system that regulates fluid balance and blood pressure.
Consuming maitake mushroom teas and extracts are beneficial for the cardiovascular system because of their cholesterol and blood lipid normalizing effects, in addition to the mushrooms aid as an anti-inflammatory.
While all forms of maitake have been shown to have health-promoting components, for concentrated myco-nutrients like the D-fraction, a quality dietary supplement might be a more suitable option.
These types come in the form of powders, capsules and liquid extracts and can vary widely depending on what part of the mushroom they are made from and how they are prepared. Many involve a combination of these forms and techniques.
There is nothing quite like the taste of fresh maitake. If you have access to a wild or cultivated variety, it is a very flavorful gourmet addition to soups, grains and numerous savory recipes. It is best when heated by simmering, steaming or sautéing.
Maitake is likewise available as a dried mushroom which can be soaked and chopped into cooked foods or added directly to soup stocks as a flavor enhancer and umami taste.
While fresh and dried version both have nutraceudical value, again, the best and most medicinally effective way to use this mushroom is as a dietary supplement, which concentrates the beneficial compounds.
There are a number of high quality supplement brands to choose from and many are now organically certified. The powders or capsules can be opened and mixed into hot tea, coffee or elixir drinks.
For increased effectiveness, it may be appropriate to use the powder or liquid extracts with other medicinal mushroom varieties like: lions mane, coriolus, reishi, cordyceps, shiitake, agaricus blazei and chaga. Visit the links at the bottom of this page to find out more about these mushrooms and their benefits.