Picture Ohio! – Sulphur Shelf Mushrooms

Sulphur Shelf, Cuyahoga Valley National Park
Sulphur Shelf, Cuyahoga Valley National Park

Yesterday my friend and fellow photographer Cheryl (aka Grasshopper), texted me that she had seen a spectacular mushroom display along one of her favorite hiking trails in the Cuyahoga Valley. It was sunny yesterday – not my favorite lighting for mushroom photography in the woods – so I waited until late afternoon before visiting the location, which by then was in the shade. There was no mistaking the mushroom – a vivid display of reddish-orange shelves sprouted from the end of the partly decomposed trunk of a large tree, probably an oak.

See the splash of orange in the upper left of the photo above? An even larger collection of the same mushrooms, shown in the photo below, covered an area roughly three feet long and two feet deep along the side of the trunk, surrounded by ferns, mosses, and lots of stinging nettles.

Sulphur Shelf, Cuyahoga Valley National Park
Sulphur Shelf, Cuyahoga Valley National Park

There are more than 2,000 kinds of mushrooms in Ohio, and many are hard to identify, but there was no mistaking the orange-red shelves, some almost a foot across, each with a smooth, lemon yellow undersurface. This was a sulphur shelf (Laetiporus sulphureus), one of the most distinctive mushrooms in North America. The mushroom gets its name from the color of the pore surface under the cap, as shown in the photo below.

Pore surface, Sulphur Shelf
Pore surface, Sulphur Shelf

The sulphur shelf is one of many species of shelf or bracket mushrooms, also called polypores, which for many years were all lumped together into a single genus, Polyporus. The scientific name of this common mushroom was Polyporus sulphureus. Additional research, including DNA analysis, now indicates that the sulphur shelf is a complex of several distinct species, of which two are found in Ohio and three are found in other parts of North America. In addition to Laetiporus sulphureus, which causes heart rot of hardwoods and may be found high up on living trees as well as on the trunks of fallen trees, Ohio is also home to Laetiporus cincinnatus (also known as Laetiporus sulphureus var.  semialbinus), shown below, which grows in rosettes, has a white spore surface under the cap, and fruits from stumps or the base of hardwood trees, as well as on the ground from buried wood. The sulphur shelf has a white spore print.

Laetiporus Cincinnatus
Laetiporus cincinnatus

The sulphur shelf is an excellent edible mushroom that tastes a lot like chicken, and is also known as the chicken of the woods. Sauteed in butter, the young caps retain their color and are very tasty, and a single large fruiting of the sulphur shelf may yield 20-30 pounds of caps for the table. It is important that the sulphur shelf be thoroughly cooked, and a few people find this mushroom indigestible, so if you have never eaten this mushroom try a small portion and wait for several hours before consuming a larger amount.

Sulphur Shelf detail, Cuyahoga Valley National Park
Sulphur Shelf detail, Cuyahoga Valley National Park

A large, fresh fruiting of the sulphur shelf is like a neon sign in the woods, and this “chicken of the woods” may roost in the same location for many years until it has extracted all the nutrients from the host hardwood.

I use a sturdy Gitzo tripod, an ISO setting of 100-200, and my standard zoom lens (i.e. a 16-85mm or the new Nikkor 16-80mm) on a Nikon D7200 to photograph these large groups of mushrooms – a macro lens isn’t needed. Lighting is critical – either a cloudy day or when the mushrooms are in full shade on a sunny day. I also take a shot or two with a Whibal card included in the photo to help fine-tune the white balance when I process the raw files later in Adobe Lightroom.

The sulphur shelf fruits from late spring through fall in the Buckeye State, so there’s still plenty of time to find and photograph (and feast on, if you wish) this “fotogenic” fungus.

 

 

 

 

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