This distinctive fungi has a range of health benefits, but we're all about its unique taste and texture.
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lions mane mushrooms in wood bowl
Credit: nextfood / Imazins / Getty Images

If you have ever walked in the woods—or even a city park—and looked up to see a giant, white cheerleading pom-pom stuck in a tree, you may have stopped in your tracks. What a throw! But what you thought you saw may not have been a pom-pom at all; instead, it was probably a lion's mane mushroom, the most huggable and strange-looking fungus out there. Lion's mane is edible, delicious, and considered a functional food since it offers numerous health benefits. Where can you find lion's mane mushroom, and how should you prepare it? Is it true that it is a substitute for crab meat? Do the reputed benefits of lion's mane meet the standards of science, or are they a myth? We have answers. (But if you'd like to skip the details our verdict is: Lion's mane is yummy, and it's pretty good for you, too.)

Viewed up-close the lion's mane resembles a shaggy ball of closely packed, dangling threads, icicles, or soft white teeth. It belongs to the genus Hericium, which includes many curious-looking, white, edible mushroom species. In Latin, Hericeus means hedgehog-like, or pertaining to spines, which speaks to the—soft, pliable—spines they all sport. In the U.S. the lion's mane mushrooms brought to market are usually either Hericium erinaceus (which translates pretty much as hedgehog-like hedgehog) or H. americanum. Other English common names for lion's mane include bearded tooth fungus and pom-pom mushroom.

In the wild lion's mane can grow very large, up to 10 pounds, fruiting on dead trees and logs, but also on injured, living trees. It is both a saprotroph (an organism digesting decomposing organic matter) and a parasite (taking nourishment from a living organism). Lion's mane's natural season is generally from late summer through fall and winter. For mushroom hunters, finding one is like discovering that pot of shiny stuff at the end of the rainbow—just better-tasting. Luckily, lion's mane is relatively easy to cultivate and the fresh mushrooms are increasingly available from farmers' markets and gourmet vendors, while dried lion's mane can be purchased at many Asian markets (it rehydrates well in soups). As more U.S. cooks and mushrooms lovers learn about this specialty mushroom, supply of fresh lion's mane is growing. Studies are also being undertaken to see whether the mushroom may be viable for forest farming (versus indoor cultivation), and you can even buy your own inoculated mushroom log ($30, windmerefarmsonline.com) or a grow kit ($24, smugtownmushrooms.com) to grow lion's mane at home. Cultivated lion's mane mushrooms are generally relatively petite, with closely-packed fine teeth, resembling a cute white earmuff more than a wilder, shaggy Cousin It.

What Do Lion's Mane Mushrooms Taste Like, and How Should You Cook Them?

In terms of texture, lion's mane is tender and spongy, with some bounce. It has a reputation for being an excellent substitute for crab or lobster, making it very appealing to anyone who suffers from shellfish allergies. The mushrooms have a very mild sweetness. (Tip: Before making crab cakes from lion's mane, sweat the chopped mushrooms to draw out as much moisture as possible or the cakes will not hold together.) Lion's mane mushrooms make an outstanding chowder. Some lion's mane can have a bitter edge, which seems exacerbated by frying. So, rather than trying to turn the mushroom crisp, adopt an East Asian approach of embracing its ability to be a sponge, and a wonderful sop for broths, soups, and sauces. Lion's mane should be well-cooked and not eaten raw: like all raw mushrooms they contain chitin in their cell walls, which can cause gastric upset, or even an allergic reaction in high concentrations. It is decreased through cooking.

A Functional Mushroom

In small clinical trials involving human test subjects, lion's mane has been shown to have mild anti-depressant effects. And in lab studies (in-vitro, in-vivo, and with mice), nerve-regenerative properties and antimicrobial effects have been researched with positive outcomes. Research is ongoing. In traditional and folk medicines, lion's mane has long been associated with staving off dementia, and is known as the "smart mushroom" for its association with brain health. In Traditional Chinese Medicine lion's mane is used to support neurological and gastric health.

Whether your go-to comfort soup is hot-and-sour, or red wine-based, add some lion's mane and savor its complex goodness.

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