This is the fourth in a series of posts about chanterelle hunting in North Carolina. Chanterelle hunting season will likely kick off in a few weeks’ time, when we have some days that are consistently in the mid-80s and our nights are warm and humid…and when all my rain dances pay off. By the time we’re seeing frequent afternoon thunderstorms and that lovely, sticky, sweaty weather I’ve come to ADORE in North Carolina’s mushroom-rich Piedmont region, these delicious and fun-to-find mushrooms should be plentiful enough for everyone to get a taste of the delights of chanterelle hunting!
This post is designed to give you a sense of what indicator species, habitat conditions, and other clues to look for when scouting for chanterelle hunting grounds. Many of these indicators also work for other delicious North Carolina edible wild mushrooms, including hedgehog mushrooms, black trumpet mushrooms, indigo milky caps, and chicken of the woods, all of which start to appear in the late spring and early summer in these parts.
Just a quick point of clarification: these indicator species and landscape features seem to be ideal for the eastern U.S. chanterelle mushroom that used to be called Cantharellus cibarius (which is currently without a name and might in fact represent more than one species), the smooth chanterelle, Cantharellus lateritius, and the even smoother chanterelle, Cantharellus confluens.
If you want to back up a bit and read about some of the yellow-gold chanterelle species that grow in North Carolina and other eastern states, cinnabar red chanterelles, edible Craterellus mushrooms that are related to chanterelles, and chanterelle mushroom lookalikes, check out my previous posts on those subjects.
Yours In Fungal Fancy,
NC Chanterelle Hunting Tips
Fortunately for the fungally inclined, North Carolina’s Piedmont is home to thousands of different wild mushroom species, well over 100 of which are considered edible. For my money, many of the edible mushrooms are not choice, and this distinction is something I always try to impress on people who are new to mushroom hunting and other pursuits in foraging. Just because you CAN eat it doesn’t mean you’ll ENJOY eating it.
However, chanterelle hunting is an amazing outlet for the culinarily inclined forager, because they are spectacularly common in North Carolina and their season tends to be bountiful and long. When you stack chanterelle hunting up against, say, morel hunting, you’re bound to have a longer period of time in which to get your fix of mushroom hunting, and sooner or later it’s inevitable that you’ll hit paydirt.
There are a few factors to watch out for in your environment that help foragers enjoy success while chanterelle hunting in and around North Carolina. Here are some of the habitat conditions, indicator species, and the general vibe of good chanterelle hunting prospects.
Chanterelle Lifestyle Notes
The chanterelles that grow in North Carolina are thought to be predominantly mycorrhizal, and as such they live in association with trees and plants. Much research remains to be done on the subject of North Carolina chanterelles, and dedicated mycologists are working hard on determining whether or not NC’s Cantharellus cibarius-like chanterelles act as decomposers, consuming dead organic material. I think it entirely possible that these chanterelles have a blended lifestyle, both partnering with the vegetation and decomposing debris.
If NC’s chanterelles are indeed at least partially mycorrhizal (which I am convinced they are), you can look for the trees they tend to grow around as a guide when you’re chanterelle hunting. The mycorrhizal relationships between fungi and plants is a mutually beneficial one, where each organism is getting a slice of the ecological pie, so to speak. The chanterelle mushroom mycelium attaches itself to the root system of a plant or tree, and grows a fine network of fungal cells that shield the plant’s roots. In many cases, this imparts immune protection to the plant or tree partner.
Many species of fungi, including chanterelles, tend to have killer immune systems because mycelium is very permeable and sensitive to threats in its habitat. Because it is only one cell wall thick and is a grand banquet for bugs, bacteria, and other fungi, mycelium is constantly producing antibacterial, antimicrobial, and other chemical cocktails that keep unwanted visitors at bay, and these benefits accrue not just to the mycelium, but also the root system of the partnered organism.
In addition to immune system protection, mycelium channels minerals and moisture to the roots of its plant partner, which in practice means that a tree with a mycorrhizal fungus usually has a much deeper reach into the nourishing soil because the mycelium is able to access and guide a lot of resources to its associate that the root system itself cannot reach or effectively capture.
In exchange for minerals, water, and protection, the plant or tree associate provides photosynthetic sugars to the fungus. Fungi, like animals and people, do not have the means to produce their own food and must find a source of nutrition in their habitat. While some mushrooms decompose dead matter and transform it into fungal carbohydrates, mycorrhizal mushrooms simply get their food from their tree partner. This mutually beneficial relationship explains why much of mushroom hunting and identification is tied up with figuring out which trees to look for, and although it’s not 100% certain, the strong correlation between the presence of certain trees and chanterelle mushrooms suggests a mycorrhizal relationship is in play.
Different species of fungi favor different plant and tree partners, and so even if it’s not the right season, you can get a head start on chanterelle hunting by noting whether or not the places you visit look right for chanterelle mushrooms. This is why I have a million GPS waypoints with names like “Chanterelles? Creekside oak and beech grove with drainage ditch.”
I am more or less always chanterelle hunting anytime I’m in the woods of North Carolina, because I know where these great wild mushrooms like to live and make note when I pass through a spot that I want to revisit during the chanterelle hunting season.
Chanterelle Indicator Trees
Here are a few of the trees that I frequently find growing close to chanterelle mushrooms. As a side note, mycorrhizal relationships between trees and mushrooms are such that you will often find the fungi within “topple distance” of the tree. Since the roots of a tree can spread out quite a distance, it is necessary to inspect all around a tree if you’re chanterelle hunting, rather than simply making a beeline for the base of the trunk. By way of illustration, I offer this observation: I typically find chanterelle mushrooms within 20-25 feet of the base of a tree, although I do sometimes find them closer in. Here are two types of trees that North Carolina yellow-gold “Cibarius looking” chanterelles and other large chanterelles seem to favor.
Various Species of Oaks
I usually find great chanterelle hunting success in groves that have a good number of oak trees (genus Quercus). It does not seem to particularly matter what kind of oak is present, and the list of species I have found growing close by chanterelle patches includes white oak, red oak, pin oak, and Virginia oak (I am sure there are more oaks that would be on this list if I were better at identifying each and every Quercus that grows in NC). Any spot where you can find oak trees, particularly younger oaks that are about 2 feet in diameter, is a good spot to go chanterelle hunting from my experience.
As luck would have it, chanterelle season coincides with a time of year when the trees are fully leafed out, and so it’s easy to identify oaks by their multi-lobed leaves, which gives them an irregular, fingered appearance. There are exceptions, of course (for instance, both the pin oak and Virginia oak have small, simpler leaves than their lobe-leafed relatives), but oak trees are one of the easiest large groups of tree species to identify if you simply know the what an oak leaf looks like.
Another tell is the acorns; if you find yourself in a spot where there are loads of acorn remains on the ground, you’re close enough to at least some oak trees to make it a possible chanterelle hunting spot.
Beech trees also appear to be good partners (or at least neighbors) for chanterelle mushrooms, and they’re even easier to identify than oak trees in a way, because they have smooth gray bark that’s fairly unique and impossible to miss against a background of ash, oak, elm, and other common NC deciduous trees. Beech trees have bright green leaves that are oblong or oval in shape, with small sawed teeth. These leaves are a bit scratchy to the touch, and they tend to decompose into crumbly, parchment-like piles that can get quite deep underfoot.
Since beech trees do not have the ridged and scaly bark of other deciduous trees, they’re super-easy to identify. Their bark looks a little bit like elephant skin to me, and as they age they tend to develop blotches or patches of lighter and darker color on the surface. One clarifying note, however: beeches do not exhibit cracking or sloughing bark that makes the tree look like it’s wearing camo pants; that would be sycamore, in case you’re curious, and when the bark falls off, portions of a sycamore tree the wood underneath is smooth and mottled green, brown, and gray.
Pines Aren’t a Rule-Out!
Although it does not seem terribly likely that NC chanterelles grow with pine and other coniferous trees, I often find them in mixed forests that feature both hardwood and conifers. One of my finest chanterelle hunting spots, in fact, is a grove of oak, elm, poplar, and pine, and the mushrooms grow robustly right at the base of some of the pines. Now, whether or not there is a true association between the pines and my beloved chanterelles is not clear, but rest assured, pine and other conifers do not exclude the possibility that the bit of forest you’re in is a prime chanterelle hunting spot!
My Favorite Plants That Share Chanterelle Habitats
There is one ground-growing, heart-shaped leafy plant that looks like wild grape that is, in my opinion, the best indicator for chanterelles in the North Carolina Piedmont. Most of my best chanterelle hunting spots are covered in the stuff, and I often find huge patches of mushrooms hiding in these wild grape-looking plants. I am not sure what the “grape vines” actually are (maybe muscadine? Not sure, I have never seen them produce fruit, so that seems unlikely).
The leaves of this plant are small, no larger than the palm of my hand and usually much more dainty, and their slender green stems grow from the ground. To my readers I do apologize, however, I am not terribly good with botany yet, so I am not quite sure what this plant is. One thing I do know, however, is that I have not found a single chanterelle in North Carolina in a habitat that lacked this plant, and as such this is my #1 go-to indicator when I am marking possible chanterelle hunting sites!
Another ground cover plant that shares a home with my beloved chanterelles is called running cedar, clubmoss, or fan ground-pine (Lycopodium digitatum). These little plants look a lot like someone buried some cedar branches in the dirt and only allowed the foliage to remain visible. Or something invented by Dr. Seuss. They’re a bit soft and smooth to the touch, and quite pretty because they’re so vibrantly green. They tend to grow in patches of many individuals, and they’re quite small. I have also found many hedgehog mushrooms (Hydnum rapandum) and cinnabar red chanterelles (Cantharellus cinnabarinus) in and around patches of this plant.
Chanterelle Hunting Habitats – Sunshine and Moisture
Like many mushrooms, chanterelles really love a bit of sunshine (although I would not call them avid sunbathers, like some mushrooms). I usually find chanterelles in dappled sunlight, rather than totally exposed or completely swallowed up in dense thickets or wild, overgrown hedges.
Again, like many other mushrooms, including the black trumpet (Craterellus fallax), chanterelles prefer spots where there’s plenty of moisture. I often find them along small tributaries and drainage ditches where there’s seasonal runoff, along creek sides, on small hillocks that trap moisture, and in dimples or depressions in the landscape that are chronically soggy and wet. One of my favorite chanterelle patches is perched right on the edge of a rock-lined drain that is drenched every time it rains.
Although chanterelles seem to do just fine without a significant landscape feature (like running water) to support their growth, I cannot deny that some of my best luck with chanterelle hunting has revolved around looking for the little ups and downs on the forest floor that increase the overall moisture in the micro-habitat.
Concluding Thoughts on Chanterelle Hunting
Naturally, I have not outlined every last detail and feature that you will find coinciding with chanterelle mushrooms, but these are the things I always look for.
And remember, you can always rinse and repeat with chanterelle hunting! Once you find a patch of them, you can rest assured that they will come back year after year, although the exact position of the mushrooms will obviously vary each season.
At the end of the day, I cannot understate the importance of getting out there and exploring a lot of different spots when you’re chanterelle hunting in North Carolina. There are a few places I go to forage for chanterelles that are completely bereft of mushrooms on one side of the path, and exploding with yellow-gold treasures on the other. Given this, it’s important to get out there and cover some ground in order to be successful with NC chanterelles. After all, you don’t know until you go!