The Cinnabar Red Chanterelle, Cantharellus cinnabarinus

Editor’s Note:

This post about the cinnabar red chanterelle is the third in a series I am dedicating to chanterelle mushrooms in the genus Cantharellus; the first addressed the “classic” yellow-orange chanterelles that grow in North Carolina, and the second addressed some of the chanterelle lookalike species (which are not terribly numerous, nor terribly close in appearance to true chanterelles).

As chanterelle season in North Carolina approaches, I will spend some time writing up additional pieces on finding chanterelles and their relatives, especially the delicious and seductive black trumpet, Craterellus fallax. So, if you want some background on chanterelles generally, I encourage you to take a peek at the earlier posts!

Cinnabar red chanterelle gills
The cinnabar red chanterelle, Cantharellus cinnabarinus. Note the orange-red coloration and forked false gills. Photo by Hamilton. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported.

Of all the different chanterelles that grow in North Carolina’s forests, the cinnabar red chanterelle, Cantharellus cinnabarinus, is one of my favorites because it’s such an excellent subject for mushroom photography. Simply put, it’s a delightfully cheerful little mushroom, and its vermilion coloration is so vibrant that I think of cinnabar red chanterelles with a degree of fondness that rivals my appreciation for wildflowers.

Although not always abundant, the cinnabar red chanterelle can be found in decent quantities throughout the North Carolina Piedmont and other eastern states in the U.S., and its season lasts long enough that they give me a dose of good cheer throughout the hot, sticky North Carolina summer and early fall! If you’re not familiar with this pretty little mushroom, read onward, and maybe you’ll come to understand why I fuss and fawn over the cinnabar red chanterelle so much!

Yours in Fungal Fancy,

Mushroom Anna

Overview of the Cinnabar Red Chanterelle

The cinnabar red chanterelle, Cantharellus cinnabarinus, is a dainty member of the genus Cantharellus, which contains many other sorts of chanterelles, many of which are edible and choice. The cinnabar red chanterelle is found east of the Rocky Mountains, and it grows through summertime and early fall in the North Carolina Piedmont. It’s widely distributed in the eastern U.S. and can be found all up and down the eastern seaboard and inland states, although there is no record of it occurring west of the Rocky Mountains. There is a very similar species called Cantharellus texensis that is found in, yes you guessed it, Texas, but the true cinnabar red chanterelle is thought to be limited to eastern and midwestern states.

Cantharellus cinnabarinus
Young cinnabar red chanterelles growing on a rocky, riverside path in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Photo by Anna McHugh.

The cinnabar red chanterelle is terrestrial and mycorhizzal, meaning that it grows on the ground in association with a plant or tree partner. In North Carolina, it favors hardwood groves, and seems to pair up most commonly with oak and beech trees. This is a good thing from a foraging perspective, because it means you can find cinnabar red chanterelles practically anywhere in the hardwood forests of the NC Piedmont. Another thing I have noticed is that I often find patches of cinnabar red chanterelles on creek banks and other exceptionally wet spots sprouting out of green moss, creating a color contrast that makes a lovely tableaux. Unlike other gourmet wild mushrooms, they also seem to do well in areas that are somewhat rocky, so they can sometimes be found on creekside paths that are festooned with rocky outcroppings and characterized by a dearth of topsoil. Although they obviously do not grow out of stone, I suspect that the mycelium of cinnabar red chanterelles is pretty resilient and can grow in substrates that are less than fecund and loamy.

Cantharellus cinnabarinus usually tops out at a few inches in height, and normally the cap is not much larger than a quarter in diameter, although they do occasionally get larger, especially when they’re found in areas with ample moisture. The stem of the cinnabar red chanterelle is thin and stringy, often tapering towards the base as the mushroom ages, and the flesh is flamingo-pink or reddish-orange throughout. Cinnabar red chanterelles have smooth and dry flesh, so if you grab a little red mushroom in the woods and it feels slimy or waxy, it’s not Cantharellus cinnabarinus! For more on possible lookalikes for this mushroom, see below.

The color and flesh texture makes the cinnabar red chanterelle somewhat different from its larger relatives, the golden chanterelles, which have solid white flesh that has the texture and color of string cheese. The caps of cinnabar red chanterelles are rounded and inrolled when the mushroom is young, and as the mushroom matures, the edges of the cap lift and often get wavy, giving the mushroom a flowery, vase-like appearance. In many instances, a small depression forms in the center of the cap of cinnabar red chanterelles, and the edges of the cap become wavy and irregular.

The fertile tissue of cinnabar red chanterelles is made up of false gills that form under the cap, like all chanterelles. These false gills are decurrent, meaning that they connect to and run down the stem of the mushroom to one degree or another. In addition, the false gills of Cantharellus cinnabarinus are frequently forked and cross-veined, especially towards the outer margin of the cap. The spore print is a pinkish-cream color, and the false gills of older specimens are often more lightly colored than the top of the cap and stem.

Cinnabar red chanterelles normally grow in patches of several individuals, and from time to time they appear in large quantities. This is a good thing, because they’re so dainty that it’s difficult to collect enough to make them a noticeable and worthwhile ingredient in a meal. Their culinary performance is pretty solid; cinnabar red chanterelles are a little fruity, a little chewy, and do not become sluggy like other chanterelles because they contain a lot less surface water than their larger, fleshier cousins in the genus Cantharellus. 

A Quick Glance at Cinnabar Red Chanterelle Lookalikes

Hygrocybe punicea, the scarlet waxy cap
Hygrocybe punicea, the scarlet waxy cap. Note the yellow true gills, yellowish portions of the stem, and its rough, slimy-looking surface. Photo by Jason Hollinger. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic.

There are a number of mushrooms that grow in North Carolina and other eastern states that might be mistaken for the cinnabar red chanterelle, and I will address a few of them here. Please note that this list is not exhaustive, because it would be both impractical and tedious to list every reddish-orange or vermilion mushroom that grows in the eastern U.S. in a single blog post (trust me, I was tempted, but upon studying a few species lists I decided that it was not a task that would be particularly fruitful in this context). Fortunately, once you get the key mushroom identification features of Cantharellus cinnabarinus down, you’re unlikely to mistake other red-orange NC mushrooms for the cinnabar red chanterelle because its distinctive features are pretty unique. Here are a few mushrooms that might look like the cinnabar red chanterelle.

NOTE TO READERS: If you think I’ve missed a mushroom that you think is a lookalike for the cinnabar red chanterelle (particularly one that grows in North Carolina) that should be included, please let me know in the comments!

Hygrocybe punicea (Scarlet Waxy Cap) and Other Red Waxy Caps

The genus Hygrocybe has some vividly colorful mushrooms in its ranks, and in passing, the bright colors of the red-orange Hygrocybe punicea (or one of its similarly colorful relatives) might appear to potentially be a cinnabar red chanterelle. Fortunately, Hygrocybe mushrooms are astonishingly easy to pin down to genus, on account of their waxy gills and caps. The gills of Hygrocybe mushrooms are usually widely spaced, and feel a little bit like candle wax when you brush them with a finger. These mushrooms are also normally more conical in shape than anything that we’d call “chanterelle.” The caps of these mushrooms are frequently a little rough to the touch underneath a slimy or waxy surface. Hygrocybe punicea, the scarlet waxy cap, is quite common on both sides of the Rocky Mountains, including North Carolina, and I often find it growing in moss, just like the cinnabar red chanterelle. Luckily, Hygrocybes are very clearly NOT chanterelles of any kind, although I occasionally fall for it when I see a few brightly colored specimens popping up in a patch of moss in the NC forests where I love to go mushroom hunting.

Entoloma quadratum/Entoloma salmoneum

Entoloma quadratum
Entoloma quadratum, sometimes called Entoloma salmoneum. These mushrooms share the coloration of the cinnabar red chanterelle in some circumstances. Photo by Dan Molter. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported.

This brightly colored little mushroom is another one that you’re very unlikely to mistake for the cinnabar red chanterelle if you are familiar with the gestalt of chanterelle-type mushrooms, but its coloration is close to that of Cantharellus cinnabarinus. Entoloma quadratum/Entoloma salmoneum are in fact the same species, but both names appear in mushroom identification field guides and collections online (Mushroom Observer, for example). Anyway, Entoloma quadratum/Entoloma salmoneum tends to be more orange than the cinnabar red chanterelle, but sometimes it has pinkish tones that might confuse a casual observer. The dead giveaway, however, is the shape of these Entoloma mushrooms’ caps; they look like little bells with a pointy bit right in the center! Furthermore, the stem of these mushrooms tends to be even more slender than that of Cantharellus cinnabarinus, and it’s hollow. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, these Entolomas have real, tightly packed gills, as opposed to the false gills of the cinnabar red chanterelle.

…and now on to the real doozie…

Craterellus mushrooms with false gills

Although the genus Craterellus contains many species of mushrooms without gills (including Craterellus fallax, the black trumpet mushroom that occurs in North Carolina), there are a few mushrooms in this genus that bear significant resemblance to the cinnabar red chanterelle…false gills, slender stem, and depressions in the cap are all features that a few Craterellus mushrooms share with the cinnabar red chanterelle. In fact, many of these mushrooms were once a part of the Cantharellus genus and are generally considered to be edible, although all the authors I’ve read on the subject do not recommend eating more than a small quantity of these Craterellus “small chanterelles” to begin with, just to be sure that they agree with you. The long and short of it is, there are some Craterellus mushrooms in North Carolina and other eastern states that look a bit like Cantharellus cinnabarinus. Fortunately, none of them line up so precisely with the identification features of the cinnabar red chanterelle that you’re likely to make a mushroom identification error.

There is significant genetic confusion about these Craterellus mushrooms (Oh mushroom genetics, how difficult it is to parse you and make you make sense! Woe is me!). However, recent studies indicate that North Carolina is home to a few Craterellus mushrooms with false gills, including Craterellus ignicolor (the flame chanterelle) and Craterellus tubaeformis (the winter chanterelle or yellow foot chanterelle). There are a few things, however, that you can look out for that tell you that what you have on  your hands is a Craterellus mushroom instead of a cinnabar red chanterelle.

  1. Coloration of the mushroom is not flamingo pink or vermilion; coloration yellow, brown, or black.
  2. Mushroom sometimes (but not always) growing out of well-decomposed wood.
  3. The mushroom has a hollow stem and sometimes a hole or “fold” of flesh on the top of the cap.

    Craterellus tubaeformis
    Craterellus tubaeformis, the winter chanterelle. Note the brown caps, light brown false gills, and yellowish stem. The winter chanterelle varies in color, but this is a pretty iconic image. Photo by Ben Mitchell. Public Domain photograph.

Although these features are not exclusive, absolute, or complete, the main one to pay attention to is #1. Long and short is this: if you find a small chanterelle-looking mushroom in the woods and think that it might be the cinnabar red chanterelle, make sure that it is terrestrial, vermilion colored, and has a solid (as opposed to hollow) stem.

For more information on the genus Craterellus, I strongly recommend looking at the information on the Cantharellus and Craterellus mushrooms on Mushroom Expert; it condenses a lot of the research (and confusion) about these mushrooms, and sheds light on how much work we truly have to do in order to properly understand the “chanterelle-type” mushrooms that grow in the eastern United States. Another good resource for mushroom hunters in the eastern U.S. and Canada is Mushroom Collecting’s treatment of the “small chanterelles,” Craterellus tubaeformis and Craterellus ignicolor.

Cinnabar Red Chanterelle Edibility Notes

The cinnabar red chanterelle is a nice culinary mushroom, if you are able to collect enough of them to make a go of it! Like all wild mushrooms, the cinnabar red chanterelle should be thoroughly cooked. They’re slightly fruity, although a bit less so than some other chanterelles, such as the smooth chanterelle (Cantharellus lateritus). I like to peel them in half down the stem and then place them on things like pizza. They are also very nice in eggs, sauteed and then put on toast, or in mushroom soups.

cinnabar red chanterelle pizza
Home made pizza with cinnabar red chanterelles, shiitake, and traditional chanterelles. Yummy! Photo by Anna McHugh.

One of the nice things about Cantharellus cinnabarinus, compared to its chanterelle kin, is the fact that they’re really easy to clean because they do not soak up surface water when they’re washed. Furthermore, their dainty false gills usually don’t end up with a lot of grit and grime in them, which is terrific, because some chanterelles can get so much dirt in their false gills it’s nearly impossible to eat them without getting a dose of the local flavor (as in dirt).

If you wish to preserve cinnabar red chanterelles, you’re best served by sauteeing them lightly and then freezing them, as opposed to drying them. Since they’re so petite, you’d probably end up with little mushroom shoestrings if you were to try dehydrating them. However, they do saute and freeze nicely, and they can easily be revived once you pull them out again. One tip for saving sauteed and frozen mushrooms of any sort is to put them into a muffin tin or another dish that has a few compartments, then seal the whole shebang in a plastic bag. That way, you can easily take a “dose” of mushrooms out for consumption with ease, and all the remaining mushrooms remain neat and tidy. I wish I had known this trick a few years ago, when I sauteed a huge pile of winter chanterelles (Craterellus tubaeformis) and stuck them in a big bag into the freezer. When it came time eat my frozen mushrooms, I had a hard time chiseling the desired specimens off the big blocky mess I’d created!

Concluding Thoughts on the Cinnabar Red Chanterelle

Cantharellus cinnabarinus is, all told, a marvelous little wild mushroom that’s easy to spot, common, numerous, and easy to identify. In addition, once you add this mushroom to your list, you’ve got another thing to look out for in habitats where larger chanterelles grow. In fact, each and every one of my major chanterelle patches have Cantharellus cinnabarinus sprinkled in here and there among the larger, yellow-gold mushrooms that are their relatives. Add a couple hedgehog mushrooms into the mix, and all of a sudden you’ve got a wonderful trio of tasty wild mushrooms that you can easily find and identify in the hardwood forests of the North Carolina Piedmont!

 


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