This post is a second in a series about collecting chanterelle mushrooms in North Carolina. The last post presented an overview of North Carolina’s large, yellow-gold chanterelle species, so if you want identification tips and a little background on these delicious wild edible mushrooms, take a look at that! In future posts, I will delve into some information about more “atypical” Cantharellus and Craterellus mushrooms that are edible, choice, and excellent wild mushrooms to hunt in the eastern United States, and more particularly in North Carolina.
I put the word “atypical” in quotes because really, there is no such thing as an atypical, or typical, mushroom! For more on identifying wild mushrooms and what features to look for when field identifying wild fungi, check out these two posts.
Yours in Fungal Fancy,
North Carolina Chanterelle Mushroom Lookalikes
There are a few species of wild mushroom that look like chanterelles that grow in North Carolina. Luckily, they are rather distinctive, and once you see several chanterelles, you are insanely unlikely to make a mushroom identification mistake. However, if you have any doubt about the identity of your “chanterelle,” consult an expert!
It’s important to feel comfortable asking for help when you’re learning to identify edible wild mushrooms, even one as distinctive and well-known as the chanterelle. In fact, I suspect a lot of “poisoning” or “allergy” experiences for mushroom hunting novices can be chalked up to a nervous belly, which is a natural consequence of flying in the face of our rather deeply rooted cultural fear of wild mushrooms! Short story long, always feel comfortable asking mycophiles what they think of the mushrooms you’ve found, chanterelle or otherwise! Mushroom fanatics are typically a welcoming bunch who are used to explaining their hobby to people, and are usually more than happy to help people at any experience level get their feet wet!
Hygrophoropsis aurantiaca, the False Chanterelle
This mushroom’s common name is the “false chanterelle” and it grows on wood in advanced states of composition, as well as on the ground, especially near or under conifers. It is listed as edible by some authors and poisonous by others, and I have never been inclined to figure out which I believe to be true. It has the vase-like shape of a chanterelle, but its stem tends to be skinnier than a chanterelle’s. Furthermore, its gills, although decurrent (running down the stem) are deep, real gills, rather than wrinkly and shallow like those found on a true chanterelle. The gills of Hygrophoropsis aurantiaca tend to be skinny and forked, which sometimes leads to confusion with the chanterelle, but again, these gills have a different character entirely from the false gills of chanterelles. The main thing to be aware of is the fact that chanterelle gills are wrinkly and often shallow.
The flesh of the Hygrophoropsis aurantiaca is flimsy, which is another thing that distinguishes it from chanterelle mushrooms, which tend to be solid through and through. The caps of false chanterelles tend to be soft, almost fuzzy or felty, and their coloration is often graded, with the center of the cap being more intensely colored than the outer margins of the cap (see photo for an idea of what I am talking about). Another thing to note is that the color of Hygrophoropsis aurantiaca is usually a lot more in the reddish-orange range than the yellow-orange scale, like a chanterelle. For this reason, this mushroom can be mistaken for the cinnabar-red chanterelle, Cantharellus cinnabarinus, but on average the false chanterelle is larger and more orange than the dainty, beautiful little cinnabar-red chanterelle. I have not encountered false chanterelles too frequently in and around the North Carolina Research Triangle, but I do bump into them from time to time, so I know they’re out there!
Hygrophoropsis aurantiaca is common throughout North America, and it’s one of those mushrooms that you can find on both sides of the Rocky Mountains. For whatever reason, a lot of mushrooms on the west coast are not the same as those out east, but the false chanterelle appears all around the U.S. and Canada. It grows in the summer and fall in North Carolina, right around the same times as the main chanterelle season (which peaks in June and July in and around Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill under normal weather conditions).
Omphalotus illudens, the Jack O’ Lantern Mushroom
Every year, it seems that at least one person in eastern North America ends up poisoning themselves with the Jack o’ lantern mushroom after collecting it and mistaking it for the chanterelle. Jack o’ lantern mushroom poisoning is reportedly a very unpleasant experience, although it is not considered a deadly mushroom by any stretch of the imagination; it’ll just make you feel wretched for a day or two.
In North Carolina and other eastern states, “Jack o’ lantern mushroom” is the common name for the species Omphalotus illudens, and the gills of some specimens reportedly glow green in the dark (more on this a little later). Out west, the same common name is typically applied to a closely related but non-glowing mushroom, Omphalotus olivescens. Omphalotus illudens also grows in Europe, alongside yet another Jack o lantern-type mushroom called Omphalotus olearius.
Luckily for those who mistake it for a chanterelle, Omphalotus illudens is not deadly poisonous, but it’s still a bad idea to try eating it! Like the green-spored parasol mushroom, Chrolophyllum molybdites, the jack o’ lantern mushroom will make you feel like crap for a couple days if it is consumed either raw or cooked, with symptoms including extreme cramps, diarrhea, and nausea.
Interestingly enough, however, a pair of compounds called illudin M and S were isolated from Omphalotus illudens, and both of these chemicals are being investigated for possible use as cancer-fighting drugs, because they act as cyto-toxins. However, all current research on illudin for cancer treatment includes significant laboratory modification of these chemicals in order to make them less toxic to humans, and it’s likely that these compounds are what’s responsible for making people sick when they eat the jack o’ lantern mushroom.
The jack o’ lantern mushroom is a bright orange mushroom that often grows in clusters, usually on decaying wood. Sometimes, however, the mushrooms appear to be growing on the ground, which contributes to confusion with chanterelles. Luckily, Omphalotus illudens has some very distinctive differences from chanterelle species. First of all, they have true, blade-like gills, whereas the chanterelle has false gills. In addition, chanterelles typically do not grow in clusters; although you might find a twin pair of chanterelles, it’s very unlikely that you’d ever find a big gob of them growing all together. The color of Omphalotus illudens is also at odds with the classic yellow-gold chanterelles. Like Hygrophoropsis aurantiaca, the jack o’ lantern mushroom is orange, like a pumpkin, not yellowish-orange like a fresh apricot. Also, the flesh on the inside of jack o’ lantern mushrooms is orange as well, whereas chanterelle species normally have whitish flesh on the interior that looks like and behaves like string cheese.
Another interesting note about Omphalotus illudens: the gills of some jack o’ lantern mushrooms glow greenish in the dark! I have never observed this trait myself, and not for lack of trying. It appears that this trait is not universal, but if you find some Omphalotus illudens mushrooms, try placing them and yourself in a dark space for a few minutes and see if they glow green for you! Then post immediately to a variety of mushroom forums and tell people that it’s not an urban legend! There are some people (including me when I’m cranky and have spent 20 minutes inside my sleeping bag with a cluster of Omphalotus mushrooms) that doubt the green-glowing gills story. It’s sort of like the Dictyophora indusiata female aphrodisiac theory…more evidence is always appreciated!
Concluding Thoughts on Chanterelle Lookalikes
Although these are not the only mushrooms that look a bit like chanterelles, these two are the species that are most frequently misidentified as such. It is worth noting that there are also some orange Lactarius mushrooms that, if you’re not familiar with chanterelles, might look like what you’re seeking! Fortunately, Lactarius mushrooms are extremely easy to identify as a genus, because they bleed or ooze a milky latex when their gills are cut are damaged, and the orange species of Lactarius also tend to have concentric patterns on their caps, as well as chalky, easily broken caps and stems.
In general, chanterelles are probably among the safest wild mushrooms, from an inexperienced forager’s perspective. They are bountiful, delicious, and really easy to find once you get the hang of what habitats they favor (hint: youngish oak groves with lots of moisture are excellent places to find chanterelles). If you want to hunt wild mushrooms and do not know where to begin, I would start with chanterelles and hedgehog mushrooms. These were the first two wild mushrooms I ever hunted and consumed, and years later I still favor mushroom forays where I am after these two varieties of mushroom, in large part because it’s a relaxing, enjoyable, and almost always successful experience.