While on our morning walk, Mrs. Shaylor, of Troy, was pulling out of her driveway when she stopped to ask if I could identify what was growing in a bush in her side yard.
What I saw growing up and around a yew bush was a huge mushroom; however, I had no idea what kind. I returned later with my camera to take pictures, and then back home again to begin checking through a book on fungi.
I found that this particular mushroom had many names. The correct name is Grifola frondosa, with the common name of maitake.
PHOTO COURTESY OF BILL BOWER
Above, part of a large maitake mushroom that was growing in a yard in Troy. At right, a younger Bill Bower holds a giant puffball (Calvatia gigantean).
For thousands of years, Asian healers have used certain edible mushrooms - including maitakes - in tonics, soups, teas, prepared foods and herbal formulas to promote good health and long life.
Until recently, the healing properties of mushrooms only have been the subject of folklore. However, in the past few decades, researchers in Japan have been studying the medicinal effects of mushrooms on the immune system, cancer, blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
This mushroom also is known as "hen in the woods" because it supposedly closely resembles the texture and meatiness of chicken breast when cooked properly and, if using your imagination, it could appear as a hen sitting on her nest. In Pennsylvania and Ohio, the fungi is known as "sheepshead" because many believe it resembles a sheep's wooly crown that needs to be sheared.
The Japanese word "maitake" means "dancing mushroom," which comes from ancient times when people were said to dance for joy when these mushrooms were found, for they literally were worth their weight in silver.
Maitake mushrooms are found in the fall of the year in eastern North America, usually at the base of an oak tree. The fungi live off the roots of the tree, and several can be found growing around one tree. They can grow to be very large, with some weighing 20 or more pounds.
I have read that this particular mushroom is very good eating and often used in stews, spaghetti sauces and Chinese recipes. To keep throughout the winter months, the mushrooms can be preserved by either air drying or a dehydrator.
A mushroom is a fungus. Our word fungus was introduced into the English language in the early 16th century as an alternative to the word mushroom. The word fungus is Latin and comes from the Greek word sponges, which means sponge. The word mushroom comes from the old French word mousse, meaning moss.
Fungi usually are tiny plants without roots, stems or leaves and are represented in such forms as mushrooms, toadstools, mildew, rust and mold. They are classified as plants because of their structure and method of reproduction; however, they receive their food in a much different way than other plants.
Ordinary green plants use a system called photosynthesis, which takes water and minerals from the soil and carbon dioxide from the air to make carbohydrates.
Fungi cannot manufacture carbohydrates because they do not possess green chlorophyll. They get their food by using both dead plants and animals (this group is called saprophytes) and also living plants and animals (this group is called parasites).
The puffball mushrooms are among the most recognizable of fall fungi. The giant puffball Calvatia gigantean can reach diameters larger than a basketball.
Since the fruiting body of a puffball grows directly from its root system, if you find one with a stalk or stem, discard it because it could be a very unsuitable look-alike, again characterized by a rank odor.
Members of the puffball family grow from July through November in most North American softwood and hardwood forests. Their outer coloration is typically white to olive brown.
For use at the dinner table, puffballs always should be white on the inside. As puffballs age, their centers turn yellowish-brown and eventually dry, producing spores (microscopic seeds). A single giant puffball produces up to 7 trillion spores.
To understand how the puffball got its name, step on the dried shell of one and watch it "puff" smoke - in the form of millions of dried spores.
Bower retired after 34 years as a wildlife conservation officer for the state Game Commission. He has published several books about his experiences. Questions and comments may be sent to him at 153 Redington Ave., Troy PA 16947.