Chanterelle Hunting in North Carolina and Beyond

Editor’s Note:

Well, it’s springtime here in North Carolina, and the black morels (Morchella angusticeps) should start appearing soon, followed by yellow morels (Morchella esculentoides, Morchella diminutiva, and Morchella virginiana). This means that groves of tulip poplar, ash, hickory, and American elm are pretty much the hot place to be.

Having awoken before the birds to get out to my favorite morel habitats to hunt, and thereafter being entirely skunked (meaning that I struck out, not that I found any skunks…that would have been lovely…how I do love skunks!), I find myself looking forward to chanterelle season, which usually kicks off in May and lasts through early August in the North Carolina Piedmont, depending on weather conditions.

Although I love the anticipation and voracious appetite for hunting that morels brings about each spring, I am equally enamored of the leisurely, almost-always-slam-dunk that is chanterelle hunting in North Carolina. Anyway, I figure I will delve into some of my observations of chanterelle mushroom hunting in the North Carolina Piedmont, in the hopes that it will assuage my thirsty imagination pending my next opportunity to hunt for morels…

Yours in Fungal Fancy,

Mushroom Anna

Cantharellus cibarius
An up-close image of the false gills of a chanterelle mushroom, Cantharellus cibarius. Photo by Andreas Kunze. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported.

Chanterelle Mushrooms – An Overview

To begin, a quick series of qualifications: first of all, the name Cantharellus cibarius is used in this post, which is a dated name that you may see in mushroom field identification guides for the chanterelles that appear on the east coast. However, it’s pretty clear that C. cibarius does not occur in North America, and so the “classic chanterelle” that appears in the woods of North Carolina does not have a name at the moment, and it’s quite possible that they actually represent more than one species.

Nonetheless, chanterelles are safe wild mushrooms to eat, and have been a delectable addition to the tables of North Carolina foragers for many years. Also, this post does not address all the chanterelle-type mushrooms that occur in North Carolina. I have decided to specifically focus on the yellow-orange, large, terrestrial chanterelles in this post because they are the easiest to find and easiest to identify; in future posts I will address other chanterelles that grow in North Carolina, like the cinnabar-red chanterelle (Cantharellus cinnabarinus), which is not as close in appearance to the “chanterelle” that occupies the popular imagination. For a more thorough treatment of the state of chanterelle taxonomy, I encourage you to look at Mushroom Expert; the Cantharellus key is quite handy and should assist you. My intent, as always, is to give broad-stroke information to those who are new to mushroom hunting as a hobby (or like my writing style for whatever twisted reason). I have used the name Cantharellus cibarius in some parts of this post, simply as a placeholder for what is currently an unnamed species (or more than one species).

Of all the delicious edible wild mushrooms in North America, chanterelles are amongst the easiest to identify and simplest to find (in large quantities, no less). I award the chanterelle mushroom bonus points for being agreeable to non-mycophiles. I have brought chanterelle mushrooms to many a potluck dinner, and people are generally more friendly towards this wild mushroom than any other, even if they know practically nothing about mushrooms.

I think the reason that non-mushroom-geeks are so open to chanterelles is that they are usually a bit familiar. Anyone who shops at Whole Foods, Central Market, or other upscale grocery stores is likely to run into fresh chanterelles from time to time, although you’ll usually pay outrageous prices for them. I have seen them go for as much as $50 a pound, even though a dedicated mushroom hunter working solo can easily collect many pounds of wild chanterelles within an hour if you’re in the right spot.

In addition, chanterelles are sold all over the United States in weensy packages of shriveled, unhappy little mushrooms. Given this, the fear that some Americans have for wild mushrooms does not seem to extend to the chanterelle as much as it does to mushrooms like the delicious, crunchy, and common hedgehog mushroom (Hydnum rapandum and Hydnum umbilicatum), even though hedgehogs are (in my opinion) even less likely to be misidentified than chanterelles.

There are many different species of chanterelle mushroom, although not all of them are commercially bought and sold as gourmet wild mushrooms. Each species of chanterelle has its own particular graces and drawbacks, but I have found and eaten many of them and have never been disappointed. Simply put, they’re delicious mushrooms that are easy on the eyes and fun to hunt.

North Carolina chanterelles, "Cantharellus cibarius." I put quotes around this species name because I suspect that we will soon discover that North Carolina chanterelles are not the same as the European chanterelles. Photo by Anna McHugh.
North Carolina chanterelles, “Cantharellus cibarius.” I put quotes around this species name because that is what most field guides call the m, but in fact NC chanterelles are not the same as the European chanterelles. Photo by Anna McHugh.

Chanterelle Mushrooms – Signature Characteristics

Most species of chanterelles have a few commonly shared characteristics that make them easy to identify. For the purposes of this post, I will focus on the larger, yellow-orange species that occur in North Carolina. Also worthy of note: chanterelles mostly belong in the genus Cantharellus, but sadly there is a lot of confusion about the specific species identity of chanterelle mushrooms in North Carolina and other eastern states.

Although the classic “chanterelle” of North Carolina is often called Cantharellus cibarius, it is pretty well established that our chanterelles actually are not Cantharellus cibarius, which is a European species. In future posts, I will address some of the taxonomy of chanterelle mushrooms, as well as edible members of the genus Craterellus, which include the awesomely delicious black trumpet mushroom (in North Carolina, Craterellus fallax) and the yellow foot or winter chanterelle (Craterellus tubaeformis).

All phylogenetic qualifiers now being (more or less) in place, here are a few of the features that make a chanterelle mushroom stand out from its other wild mushroom brethren:

  1. False gills that run down the stem: Most species of chanterelle mushrooms have gill-like structures under their caps, but they are not deep and blade-like, as with many other fungi. Instead, the “gills” (which are referred to as “false gills”) of chanterelles tend to be shallow, veined, forked, and wrinkly, and in most cases they can easily be scraped off the mushroom’s cap and stem with a fingernail. Also, the gills of chanterelles are decurrent, meaning that they run down the stem of the mushroom, rather than being attached only to the cap or top of the stem. Some of our local North Carolina chanterelles have pretty deep-looking gills, to be honest, but they are more like ribbed protrusions of mushroom flesh, rather than blade-like gills that are found on Amanita mushrooms, Chlorophyllum mushrooms, Armillaria mushrooms, and others. The smooth chanterelle, Cantharellus lateritus, has no gills at all, or a very faint suggestion of gills under its cap.
  2. Vase-like, flowery, or otherwise irregular cap shape. Many chanterelle mushrooms, especially the larger species, tend to take on a vase-like or even trumpet-shaped appearance as they age, with the false gills exposed (rather than being shaded by the mushroom’s cap). Many chanterelles also develop wavy edges and lumps or blossoms of fungal flesh that grow out of the cap in rather irregular ways, which sometimes makes the mushroom look like the offspring of a squashed carnation and a fungus-trumpet. There are mushrooms of the genus Gomphus that also have false gills and a vase-like appearance, but they can usually be distinguished from chanterelles with ease on account of the consistency of their flesh (a bit mealy and rubbery at the same time) and the propensity for Gomphus mushrooms to be hollow-stemmed and scaly. Also, Gomphus mushrooms tend to be colored differently than chanterelles. The edible pig’s ear mushroom, Gomphus clavatus, is sort of brown with purplish tones on its false gills. The so-called scaly chanterelle, Gomphus floccocus, tends to have reddish-orange fuzzy scales on its vase-shaped cap, with pale false gills.

    Gomphus clavatus
    The pig’s ear mushroom, Gomphus clavatus. The purple/brown coloration distinguishes this mushroom from the chanterelle. I have seen this mushroom sold commercially as “blue chanterelle,” which I find to be quite ridiculous. Photo by Vavrin. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported.
  3.  Gold or yellowish-orange coloration. This trait is not absolute, but many chanterelle mushrooms are a bright, cheerful yellow-gold or apricot color, including the species that appear commonly in North Carolina’s wooded habitats, Cantharellus cibarius (see note above for reservations about the use of this Latin name) and the smooth chanterelle, Cantharellus lateritus. Some species of chanterelles are differently colored, for instance the dainty and delicious cinnabar-red chanterelle (Cantharellus cinnabarinus), which as the name implies is vermillion-colored, and is a very common chanterelle species in North Carolina. There are also blue-black chanterelles (Polyozellus multiplex), white chanterelles (Cantharellus subalbidus), and winter chanterelles/yellow foot chanterelles (Craterellus tubaeformis) that are often sort of burnt sienna-orange or brown colored (I once found some in a burn zone that were gray, and the winter chanterelle seems to have a lot of color variation depending on its habitat). Not all of these species occur in North Carolina; these are just a few of the species that are commonly known as “chanterelles” that aren’t yellow-gold, and there are others, but even if you don’t want to go to the trouble of learning your non-yellow-gold chanterelle mushrooms, you’re still likely to find plenty for your pantry.
  4. Growing in association with oak and other hardwoods. When it comes to North Carolina’s chanterelles, you will mostly find them growing in association with and nearby hardwood trees, particularly oaks. Although chanterelles in North Carolina do just fine in mixed coniferous/hardwood forests, the greatest patches I know of are in woodlands that are inhabited by hardwoods primarily, and in some places, chanterelles are abundant in young, second- or third-growth forests with young oaks. In other parts of the country, chanterelles have different partners and differing growth patterns; in the Pacific Northwest they grow near douglas fir, coastal pine, silal, huckleberry, and a wide array of other native plants. In California, the gigantic mud puppy chanterelle, Cantharellus californicus, grows with mature live oak trees. If you’re looking for chanterelles in North Carolina, however, head out to an oak grove and see what you can come up with!
  5. Whitish flesh that is solid like mozzarella cheese. Cantharellus cibarius and Cantharellus lateritus both have flesh that is yellow-gold on the outside and whitish on the inside (typically, cibarius more so than lateritus). When the mushroom stem is sliced open, the flesh looks a lot like mozzarella cheese, and is similarly easy to peel apart in solid little strings! Other mushrooms in the genus Cantharellus lack this feature, but the large and yellow-gold North Carolina chanterelles generally posssess this trait.

    cantharellus lateritus
    The smooth chanterelle, Cantharellus lateritus. C. lateritus usually has a strong fruity aroma and faint or nonexistent false gills, and is relatively common in the North Carolina Piedmont. Photo by Dan Molter. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported.
  6. Fruity aroma. Chanterelles often have a fruity, somewhat apricot-like aroma. In particular, the so-called smooth chanterelle, Cantharellus lateritus, has a strong fruity smell that is very pleasant. Cantharellus cibarius (or whatever it is) sometimes lacks this aroma, and sometimes has it. To be honest, I would not be surprised if genetic analysis reveals that what we call Cantharellus cibarius is in fact a complex of species, including chanterelles that have a fruity smell and those that do not. Anyway, it is a very distinctive aroma and very helpful in mushroom identification!
  7. Terrestrial growth, in patches but not clusters. Cantharellus cibarius and Cantharellus lateritus grow on the ground, and normally pop up in patches of several individuals that all arise from the same mycelium. In some parts of the NC Piedmont, you will find chanterelle patches of 30+ individuals, and in other locations no more than a few. One thing that makes chanterelles distinct is their tendency to come up in ones and twos; the large golden-yellow chanterelles do not grow in clusters of mushrooms arising from the same spot. You may find them partnered up with a “twin” mushroom, and two individuals might be conjoined at the base, unlike lookalike species such as the poisonous Jack o’ lantern mushroom, the classic North Carolina chanterelles do not grow in clusters! Also, these mushrooms grow on the ground, rather than arising from downed wood. There are some chanterelle-type mushrooms that grow on decomposing wood in North Carolina, but they are far smaller and less easily identified than “traditional” chanterelles. I will write about these smaller, wood-decomposing chanterelles in another post, alongside Cantharellus cinnabarinus, the cinnabar-red chanterelle.

Collecting Chanterelles Responsibly is Easy!

gomphus floccocus
The scaly chanterelle, Gomphus floccocus. This mushroom has pale gills and a scaly cap that feels like a ragged, wet sock. Although many people eat this mushroom, it causes stomach upset in some. Photo by Nicholas Tonelli. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic.

Chanterelles are largely mycorrhizal, meaning that they partner with a tree or plant partner, and they are perennial. This makes them terrific mushrooms for foraging, because once you find a good patch of them, you can return year after year to collect them! When I teach foraging classes, people invariably ask me if picking mycorrhizal mushrooms like chanterelles will do long-term harm to the mycelium that produced them. The answer, in general, is NO, just go ahead and pick the mushrooms and enjoy them! Mycelium is amazingly tough and the mushrooms are simply the reproductive expression of the fungus. You are typically doing no more harm to the mycelium by picking chanterelles than you would do harm to an apple tree when you harvest its fruit.

A lengthy study of Pacific Northwest golden chanterelles (Cantharellus formosus) in Oregon revealed that rainfall and weather conditions affected chanterelle formation much more than years and years of harvesting using different techniques. This research also hinted at an interesting conclusion: the chanterelles in one of the test plots were harvested by slicing the mushroom off at its base in order to minimize damage to the mycelium underground, whereas the mushrooms in another test plot were totally uprooted. Over the course of more than 20 years, uprooting the mushrooms didn’t seem to affect the chanterelle mycelium’s health (as measured by size and quantity of mushrooms produced).

Nonetheless, I usually don’t uproot my chanterelles, just on the off chance that it’s in any way harmful to the organism to disturb the portion of the mycelium that produced the mushroom. In addition, I cut them off at the base of the stem because it keeps my chanterelles a lot cleaner! Chanterelles have dainty wrinkled gills that catch forest duff and dirt like nothing else, and when I slice my chanterelles above the level of the ground, I get a lot less dirt in my collecting bag, which in turn means a lot less work for me when I get my mushrooms home and set about cleaning and processing them!

chanterelles
Chanterelles in Durham, NC. This orangy-yellow color is distinctive of “Cantharellus cibarius.” Photo by Dcrjsr. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported.

Another practice that I observe when collecting chanterelles is to avoid taking every last mushroom that I see, because I want some of those fruiting bodies to do their work and create new mycelium! Chanterelles tend to be very abundant in North Carolina, and so I pick and choose carefully which mushrooms I really want. I also tend to leave baby and old fogy mushrooms alone and focus on large, firm-fleshed specimens, because these are the best from a culinary perspective. The young chanterelles tend not to have as much fruity flavor and I like to give them a chance to grow, and the old ones tend to get mushy and are less appetizing!

One final note on picking chanterelles: although it’s true that the act of collecting mushrooms does not harm the mycelium, it’s always a good idea to be respectful of the habitat that you’re visiting. One of the saddest things I’ve ever seen in myco-land was a series of abandoned commercial chanterelle hunting camps on the Oregon coast, each of which looked like a garbage dump. The habitats around the camps were similarly misused, because it appeared that the hunters didn’t want to waste time picking through the undergrowth and had gone at particularly dense thickets with machetes or something similar. The one upside of this experience, however, was the HUGE pile of awesome but less than picture-perfect chanterelles that the hunters left behind in piles all around their camp. Although I was hunting behind them and didn’t do well myself with finding chanterelles, I salvaged several pounds of the best “rejects” and they were delicious!

Please note, I am not in any way implying that ALL commercial chanterelle hunters are disrespectful of the environment, and most commercial pickers I’ve met are very conscientious and aware of the value of the lands they visit, some far more so than your average recreational mushroom hunter, who is not as familiar with the delicate relationships that make healthy ecosystems thrive. Long story short, treat the forest with respect and try to minimize your personal impact on the natural spaces you visit.

Chanterelle Edibility Notes…Make ’em Chewy, Not Sluggy

As with all wild mushrooms, chanterelles must be cooked thoroughly. They have a delicate, somewhat fruity flavor most of the time, and are quite amazing on pizza, in soups, and lightly fried up and then used to top entrees, baked potatoes, or whatever else is on your menu. The biggest danger with chanterelles is that they will become sluggy, because most chanterelles have a lot of surface water in them that must be removed before adding other ingredients to them.

A single North Carolina chanterelle. Note the wavy-edged cap and strongly decurrent false gills that run down the stem. Also, the firm white flesh at the base of the stem is a distinctive feature. Photo by Anna McHugh.
A single North Carolina chanterelle. Note the wavy-edged cap and strongly decurrent false gills that run down the stem. Also, the firm white flesh at the base of the stem is a distinctive feature. Photo by Anna McHugh.

Although many people refuse to dehydrate them, I have had exceptionally good luck drying chanterelles and then getting a lot of joy out of them a few months later. In order to make this work, you need to slice the mushrooms very thin and into small pieces, so that they dry quickly and uniformly. If the pieces are too large, chanterelles that have been dried tend to rehydrate inconsistently, and also tend to be tough as shoe-leather.

The other important factor in being successful with enjoying dried chanterelles is to rehydrate them properly. Unlike morels and porcini mushrooms, which can simply be rehydrated in warm water, dried chanterelles, in my experience, need some consistent heat for a period of 20-30 minutes.

When I rehydrate chanterelles, I simmer them in about a cup of water per quarter cup of dried mushrooms, keeping them mostly covered but with the pot lid cracked, at low to medium-low heat. As the liquid boils off, the chanterelle flavor in the water sticks to the mushrooms. If you simply heat the mushrooms and discard the water, you end up losing a lot of the great fruity chanterelle flavor, so make sure you don’t pour off the rehydration water, just simmer it all down together. Also, it’s tastes awful nice if you add a small lump of butter to the water, although it’s not strictly necessary.

If you’re planning to eat chanterelles, bear in mind that they tend to contain a lot of water when fresh, so cooking them with oil or butter in a pan is not a straightforward matter of heating your oil and throwing mushrooms in the pan. Instead, put the chanterelles into a dry heated pan for a couple minutes; during this time they will drop all their surface water, which sometimes pours out of the mushrooms like crazy. Stir the mushrooms to keep them from sticking and let some of that water evaporate off, then remove the mushrooms from the pan. Next, add your butter or oil, and then add the chanterelles back to the pan and saute them. The trick to this is making sure that you dry the chanterelles up a bit before you do anything else with them! If you plan to top a pizza, make mushroom quiche, or otherwise add chanterelles to a baked dish, I strongly suggest a quick dry saute as well, so that the mushrooms are chewy instead of squishy!

Some people eschew washing their wild mushrooms, including chanterelles, because they soak up water when you wash them. If you use a dry saute method, however, you will simply cook off any water you use to rinse them, so I go crazy and get them nice and clean, and in my experience this does not cause a loss of flavor. Washing is particularly helpful because the false gills of chanterelles can get a lot of little bits of dirt and grit in them that is difficult to remove with a brush alone. When I prepare chanterelles, I  brush them thoroughly to remove as much grime as possible, then wash them gently to remove the rest.

Another note on washing chanterelles: I always use a large bowl or small bucket and then pour the chanterelle washing water around the oak trees on my property. The reason for this is that when you wash mature mushrooms, you are washing off a terrific number of mushroom spores, and I like to give those spores a chance to germinate and maybe form a mycorrhizal relationship with the trees in my yard. Although this is by no means a method that will definitely cause chanterelles to grow nearby, there is no harm in doing so, and if it works then hey, you just helped a delicious mushroom species get a foothold next to your house!

cantharellus formosus
Ooooh pretty! Chanterelles are great subjects of mushroom photography! Photo by Caphillkid. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported.

Final Notes on Chanterelle Hunting in North Carolina

Chanterelles are wonderful mushrooms for novice and experienced mushroom hunters in North Carolina. They are abundant, pretty, good to eat, and grow so rampantly all around the NC Piedmont that it’s almost impossible for a burgeoning mushroom fanatic not to notice them everywhere (if you’re not sure whether or not you’re a mushroom fanatic, check your symptoms here). Even if you’re just starting out and feel unsure of yourself when it comes to gathering wild fungi, I would encourage you to learn the chanterelle, because it is so common that you’re bound to find some and form a lasting and, ahem, fruitful relationship with it.

When you head out on a mushroom foray in search of chanterelles, make sure you bring along your camera! Chanterelles are amazingly photogenic fungi, and if you’re the sort of person who likes to post myco-porn to different forums and websites, you will find chanterelles to be quite nice subjects for mushroom portraiture!


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