Today’s post will look at the pig’s ear mushroom, Gomphus clavatus. This is a bit of a weirdo mushroom and not everyone likes eating it, but I have had good experiences with this mushroom on the whole.
It’s kind of funky-looking, true, but it also has a pleasing texture (most of the time), and does very well when prepared with herbs that have a hint of sweetness to them, such as tarragon or oregano. The first time I ate this mushroom, it was in a creamy pasta dish with abundant aromatics and herbs, and it was quite a treat!
If you’re a novice mushroom hunter and you’re in the market for a new species to identify with confidence, Gomphus clavatus is a pretty good choice because it’s distinctive and reasonably common, and the fruiting bodies are large enough that even if you only find one or two of them, you’ll have plenty for a meal!
So onward and upward, fellow mycophiles, let us sing the praises of humble Gomphus clavatus and enjoy the fruits of this strange but tasty forest treat.
Yours In Fungal Fancy,
Overview of Gomphus clavatus, The Pig’s Ear Mushroom
Gomphus clavatus is a distinctive mushroom that is a good edible species for those who are transitioning from novice to slightly less novice mushroom hunting for the table. Gomphus clavatus goes by the common name “pig’s ear” because, well, it looks a bit like a pair of piggy ears in a lot of cases. Gomphus clavatus is edible and I think it’s above average when it comes to wild edible mushroom species, although I have met some people who find it bland or a little on the un-yummy side.
This mushroom is mycorrhizal, which means that it lives symbiotically with trees. The mycelium of mycorrhizal species form a network of fungus that attaches to tree roots, and each partner organism trades resources with the other.
Gomphus clavatus favors coniferous partners, notably fir and spruce, but in the North Carolina Piedmont I usually find it in pine groves. It is not tremendously common around the NC Research Triangle, perhaps due to the fact that this species’ preferred coniferous partners are not really present in our forests, but when you find them, you’re likely to end up with a good bit of edible loot, because these mushrooms can grow to be quite large.
Fruiting Body Description of Gomphus clavatus
Gomphus clavatus is characterized by a sort of flowery-looking fruiting body with two or more caps that look distinctly “ear-like” when the mushroom is mature and dropping its spores. The top of the mushroom is usually tan to brown, though if it is dry or old, it can be darker and take on shades of gray (just not 50 of them, only a little bit here and there, and still largely brown/tan on top).
Like chanterelle mushrooms, Gomphus clavatus has false gills, which are wrinkly and decurrent (i.e. running down the stem of the mushroom). These wrinkles are often cross-veined, shallow, and not very organized. Unlike the common golden chanterelle of the NC Piedmont (which has no name but used to be called Cantharellus cibarius), Gomphus clavatus’ false gills are not at all deep, closely spaced, or blade-like, but rather wrinkly and erratically forked in some places.
The false gills of Gomphus clavatus are lilac in color, though if the mushroom is dried out, these false gills may look more purple-brown. However, in their prime, pig’s ears sport a lovely hue of lilac on the whole fertile surface of the mushroom. The stems of the pig’s ear tend to be thick, so that at the end of the day, the fruiting body does in fact look like a pair of ears protruding from the ground with a bit of tapering at the base of the mushroom.
The fruiting body of Gomphus clavatus is somewhat rubbery to the touch, but it’s smooth and dry (rather than sticky or slimy) and its flesh can be quite dense in some instances. This is particularly the case with pig’s ears found in North Carolina. They’re a fall mushroom in these parts, and since that’s also a rather dry time of year for us (relatively speaking), they’re often sort of like fungus-clubs that are dense and chunky.
Another advantage of the dry seasonality of this mushroom in North Carolina is that Gomphus clavatus found here are not frequently bug-infested. In other parts of the country, they’re often riddled with fly larvae at or before maturity. In wetter climates and habitats, Gomphus clavatus is often a little more pliable as the fruiting body becomes swollen with water, which makes the piggy ear-ness of the mushroom more, shall we say, obvious, especially when measured up against the stout and chunky specimens that I sometimes find in the cool, dry autumns of North Carolina.
Range and Habits of Gomphus clavatus
The pig’s ear mushroom has a large range in North America, although it fruits in different seasons depending on where it grows. On the east coast, it’s primarily a fall mushroom, and I’ve never seen it before late September (which is coming right up, kids, so keep your eyes peeled!). In the Pacific Northwest, it also fruits in the fall, right around the same time as the chanterelles and hedgehog mushrooms that it commonly shares habitat with. In coastal California, it fruits in the wintertime, just like many other good mushrooms on the north coast of California.
Gomphus clavatus can grow in impressive fairy rings of several individuals, but it’s just as commonly found in ones and twos. In my experience in North Carolina, this mushroom does very well in pine forests that have low spots that get boggy. I often find it in or near seasonal creek beds that are squishy and sometimes sopping wet in the fall, even if it has not rained in a week or more.
Identification of Gomphus Clavatus and Potential Lookalikes
In general, Gomphus clavatus is what I’d consider to be an easy mushroom to identify because it has few lookalikes; those mushrooms that share its false gill features tend to be Cantharellus or Craterellus mushrooms that are edible and choice, and the vast majority of these chanterelle species are yellow, orange, reddish, or peach.
The so-called scaly chanterelle, Turbinellus floccosus (formerly called Gomphus floccosus), is one such lookalike, but it is a mushroom with white to white-yellow flesh that has scaly orange patches on the cap that are kind of furry and mealy at the same time. The vase-shaped fruiting body of Turbinellus floccosus has a hollow stem, and overall it’s a more slender and tall mushroom than the pig’s ear, and it does not arise in pairs or triplets of caps like Gomphus clavatus. The scaly chanterelle has false gills that are wrinkled and rubbery flesh, but the gills are pale in color, not lilac. Turbinellus floccosus causes gastrointestinal upset in some people, but I’ve eaten it without ill effect, although I will admit I did not particularly enjoy it.
Another possible lookalike for Gomphus clavatus is the so-called blue chanterelle, Polyozellus multiplex, which is blue-black in color and tends to be smaller than Gomphus clavatus. This mushroom is also pretty rare, but either way, its dark coloration and size set it apart from Gomphus clavatus.
Oh, and Polyozellus multiplex is edible (but some deem it gross at best, others call it choice), so there’s no need to worry about this mushroom at all, except perhaps to worry that you will never be lucky enough to find one! For those who might be mushroom hunting in North Carolina or other southeastern states, it’s not a species that I was able to find documented in this state, and most collections of Polyozellus multiplex come from the Pacific Northwest, Maine, Colorado, and other northern mountainous regions.
There are other purplish-brown mushrooms to be sure, but most of them have deep, blade-like gills that are radially arranged, which stand in stark contrast to the wildly wrinkly underside of the pig’s ear mushroom. However, just to be on the safe side, if you find a mushroom that you think is Gomphus clavatus, be sure to cross-check your mushroom with other purplish species. There are several Cortinarius mushrooms that are lilac to purple, as well as some mushrooms in the Laccaria genus, and the latter have rubbery fruiting bodies.
Another possible (although unlikely) lookalike is the edible and choice blewitt mushroom (Clitocybe nuda, often called Lepista nuda in older field guides), which usually has a brown-purple cap with light purple gills. This mushroom is a standby edible species that’s quite popular, and it’s easy to tell apart from Gomphus clavatus because the blewitt is a traditional cap-and-stem mushroom with deep, straight gills that are tightly packed and not running down the stem of the fruiting body.
My Weird Gomphus Clavatus Experience
I have collected and eaten Gomphus clavatus on many occasions, and although I do like it, I would be hard pressed to call it a mushroom that’s well-suited to commercial distribution. However, apparently not everybody agrees with my assessment. There is a particular regional gourmet/natural food grocery store in Texas (which I shall not name) that was a favorite haunt of mine when I lived in the Austin area.
This market frequently had cool wild mushrooms for sale, and I would sometimes pop in simply to see what was on offer that day. Well, one afternoon I stroll in and whaddyaknow, they’d added a new bin next to the chanterelles: BLUE CHANTERELLES! I peered into the bin and, to my surprise, it was full to the brim with pig’s ear mushrooms, which are so unblue that it’s alarming they even thought to market them as such. For a whopping $45.99 a pound, a whole $3 more than the lovely, fruity Pacific Northwest golden chanterelles that were right next door. Now, I don’t mean to disparage Gomphus clavatus by any means, but it’s simply not as good as the golden chanterelle, and certainly not $45.99 good! I shook my head, a world-weary mushroom fanatic in a mycophobic world, and went about my day.
The next time I visited this store, I saw that they still had a bin for “blue chanterelles” and I couldn’t help but take a peek and see if they’d gotten any Polyozellus multiplex (for realsies) this time around, especially because one of my dirty mushroom hunter secrets is that I’ve never eaten a true blue chanterelle.
NOPE! This time, I was greeted with little cap-and-stem affairs that were light purple with bits of brown and deep, blade-like gills. In my opinion, the guys at the natural food store really BLEWITT that day!