Every person has different preferences and tastes, and this is especially true when it comes to wild edible mushrooms. Some mushroom hunters love to eat stink horn eggs, but the only time I tried them it was a thoroughly gagsome experience, and you won’t catch me doing it ever again. Similarly, some folks have a penchant for Berkeley’s polypore, Bondarzewia berkeleyi, and each time I’ve tried it I’ve been pretty disappointed.
In contrast, one of the tastiest edible mushrooms I’ve had a chance to try is the greening goat’s foot (Albatrellus ellisii, also known as Ellis’ polypore, which I wrote about sampling in this post from what feels like a million years ago), but some people think they’re stupendously gross and I can’t say I blame them. After all, it is covered in little wiry fur and it stains pickle-green. I also like the meaty-molasses flavor of the hawk’s wing, Sarcodon imbricatus, but I’ve met plenty of people who just downright abhor them for whatever reason, usually citing a bite of bitterness that is particularly common in the hawk’s wings found in California. Bottom line is, the quality and desirability of different wild edible mushrooms is frequently a matter of personal preference, so my recommendations might not suit everybody.
Another thing worth noting is that many North Carolina mushroom hunters swear that one of the state’s best edible mushrooms is Amanita jacksonii, a common North Carolina mushroom in the Caesar’s Amanita group, but as I have explained before, I don’t eat Amanita mushrooms because it just wigs me out too much. All caveats now in place, here’s my personal top 10 list of North Carolina edible mushrooms!
Yours in Fungal Fancy,
Edible Mushroom Hunting in North Carolina – What a Bounty!
One of the great things about North Carolina, from my perspective, is the tremendous array of edible mushrooms that grow in our forests, fields, and mountains. Mushroom season is long and bounteous, starting out in April and running all the way through December and sometimes even past the new year.
I have lived in some fantastically fungusy places before (to wit, Oregon, Washington, and the Sierra Nevada Mountains of northern California), and although these places have terrific edible mushrooms like the spring king bolete (Boletus rex-veris) and the Pacific Northwest golden chanterelle (Cantharellus formosus) none of these regions enjoy as long of a wild mushroom hunting season as my new-ish hometown of Raleigh in the North Carolina Piedmont.
In fact, I used to regularly suffer from serious bouts of PMSD (Post Mushroom Season Depression, a term coined by a wonderful mushroom mentor named Damien Pack). This was especially common when I lived in California, because there simply weren’t enough opportunities to hunt for wild edible mushrooms for my taste. During the non-mushroom portions of my year, I spent a lot of time lazing about by the Yuba River and feeling really sorry for myself, which in retrospect was a ridiculous indulgence in self-pity. For those of you who’ve never been to the Yuba River, it’s just about the prettiest place I’ve ever been, and its got amazing snow-melt swimming holes that are as clean and cool as river water gets.
Anyway, back to mushrooms and mushroom season. Hunting for edible wild mushrooms is tricky in a way; it’s one of those pursuits you can really fall in love with, but it’s not an obsession that you can indulge all year long. Sometimes, I wish I felt as strongly about brewing beer or making baskets as I do about hunting for mushrooms. It simply cannot be helped, and I suppose there are worse things, especially now that I’ve landed in a part of the United States that has roughly 200 different species of edible mushrooms growing in the wild, and many months where the hunting is good!
My #10 Edible Mushroom – The Beefsteak Polypore, Fistulina hepatica
Season: Summer and Early Fall
The beefsteak polypore (Fistulina hepatica) is one of the few wild edible mushrooms that is often eaten raw, and it’s quite tasty when it’s prepared like beef tartare, because its meaty texture and citrusy-sour flavor is complements the dijon-worcestershire-caper-anchovy flavors of the tartare sauce.
Fistulina hepatica is an extremely recognizable polypore and grows fairly commonly throughout the summer and fall. It is a saphrophyte, meaning that it decomposes wood and can be found growing on logs, stumps, and at the bases of trees. It also may be slightly parasitic to living trees, and it tends to prefer oak in the North Carolina Piedmont. The beefsteak polypore is reddish or maroon, and sometimes has a bit of orange coloration, particular on the margin of its fan-shaped fruiting body. It often oozes a red juice when it’s squeezed, and it has a white, porous undersurface. Older specimens can develop little streaks of darker coloration throughout the fruiting body, but under ideal circumstances they look just like a slab of raw beef sticking off the side of a tree or stump, often with little granular dots or velvety bumpiness, and the fruiting body is soft and easily sliced.
Although I don’t always feel up for Fistulina hepatica, it’s a nice wild edible mushroom if you’re in the mood for something a bit chewy and raw-beef-esque. Its sour flavor is pretty darn good too if your palate is in the right frame of mind to enjoy bright flavors.
My #9 Edible Mushroom – Craterellus odoratus, The Fragrant Chanterelle
Although the common name for Craterellus odoratus is the fragrant chanterelle, it is not in the classic chanterelle genus, Cantharellus. For more on the distinction between Craterellus and Cantharellus mushrooms, I wrote a post some time ago that delved a little into the difference between these two genera. Bottom line is that a number of edible mushrooms that used to be called “chanterelles” (and were assigned to Cantharellus) have been moved over to the Craterellus genus in recent years, and Craterellus odoratus is one such mushroom, along with the yellow foot chanterelle, Craterellus tubaeformis, and the flame chanterelle, Craterellus ignicolor.
Craterellus odoratus looks a lot like a golden-yellow chanterelle, although its fertile surface is smooth and sometimes has a sort of whitish or pinkish coloration where its spores deveop. It has a strong fruity aroma and its thin flesh is a bit more rubbery than “classic” North Carolina chanterelles. It grows in deciduous forests near oak trees, mostly in the summertime, and it usually shares habitat with golden chanterelles and the cinnabar-red chanterelle, Cantharellus cinnabarinus.
Craterellus odoratus shares the trumpet or flowery shape of large chanterelle species, although as mentioned above, it does not have false gills, and it usually grows in a cluster of several individuals that are folded together and irregularly shaped. This clustering is a trait that distinguishes Craterellus odoratus from chanterelles. Also unlike traditional chanterelles, the fragrant chanterelle has a hollow stem.
Although it shares the yellow-gold color of traditional chanterelles, Craterellus odoratus tends to be a little on the orangey side and its smooth surface often looks a bit waxy and shiny. This mushroom sort of looks like a cross between the black trumpet and the golden chanterelle, and its fruity aroma and flavor are quite pleasant. This is a good edible mushroom when it’s young, but as they age they become a bit icky.
My #8 Edible Mushroom – Chicken of the Woods, Laetiporus sulfureus and Laetiporus cincinnatus
Season: Late Spring, Summer, and Early Fall
Laetiporus cincinnatus and Laetiporus sulfureus both go by the common name chicken of the woods, and they have a blended saprophytic and parasitic lifestyle, both decomposing and attacking host trees. As polypores, these mushrooms have a porous underbelly instead of gills, and the top of the fan-shaped or shelving caps have distinctive concentric growth zones. Laetiporus cincinnatus grows on the butts and roots of trees and thus appears growing on the ground or at the base of trees, while Laetiporus sulfureus is common on dead, dying trees, stumps, or logs. Called “chicken of the woods” in common mushroom hunter parlance, these two species are terrific edible mushrooms, although some people do have allergic reactions to them that are no fun (but not dangerous).
Chicken of the woods grows throughout the summer and fall, with Laetiporus cincinnatus commonly appearing earlier in the season than its cousin Laetiporus sulfureus. In fact, I found my first North Carolina chicken of the woods on the 3rd weekend of May in 2010, and it was the first time I had a chance to try Laetiporus cincinnatus, which is an exclusively eastern United States species. I must confess that even though I do like Laetiporus sulfureus, Laetiporus cincinnatus is much better in my estimation because it’s more tender and completely lacking the somewhat acrid flavor that sometimes haunts specimens of Laetiporus sulfureus.
Both these mushrooms taste a good bit like chicken, and they’re also very good edible mushrooms for beginners because they do not have poisonous lookalikes! Next time you’re out in the woods, be sure to inspect the bases of oak trees for Laetiporus cincinnatus, because they’re out right now but they won’t last forever!
My #7 Edible Mushroom – The Indigo Lactarius, Lactarius indigo
This mushroom is super-distinctive; it bleeds a bright blue juice when it’s cut, and it sort of looks like you’ve gone to war with a can of blue paint when you handle it. Lactarius indigo is part of the large and extremely common Lactarius genus, which is so named because the gills of these mushrooms bleed juice (called “latex”) when they are damaged or cut. I have written about this one before, so if you want to know all about the various potential lookalikes and some of the genetic mysteries surrounding this bright blue mushroom, I suggest you take a look at that post from a couple months ago.
Although some people do not really fancy the flavor of Lactarius indigo, I think it’s nice because it’s crunchy and mild, and when gently sliced and sauteed, it makes a nice addition to a salad or pizza. This mushroom is mycorrhizal, meaning that it grows on the ground in association with trees and plants, both with conifers and hardwoods. It grows in small groups of individuals or solo, and it peaks in the summertime in North Carolina, and I usually find it growing with pine and pin oak.
Lactarius indigo is a fun edible mushroom for me because of its vibrant coloration and cool-looking concentric growth zones, which are usually quite distinctive. In addition, it is very common and quite abundant in the North Carolina Piedmont, which makes it a good mushroom if you want to rake together a big pile of them!
My #6 Edible Mushroom – Chanterelles, Cantharellus cinnabarinus, Cantharellus confluens, Cantharellus persicinus, the Mushroom Formerly Known as Cantharellus cibarius, and Others
Season: Summer and Early Fall
Chanterelles are common and abundant in North Carolina, and they kick off their season as soon as the weather gets hot and muggy. For notes on where and when to find chanterelles, as well as a quick rundown on chanterelle lookalikes that grow in North Carolina take a look at this post on chanterelle habitats and this one on lookalikes from a few weeks ago.
In the North Carolina Piedmont, chanterelles of several sorts fruit throughout the summer and sometimes into early fall. There are numerous species of chanterelles that grow in North Carolina, including a peachy-colored chanterelle that does particularly well in the mountains called Cantharellus persicinus and a dainty red-orange chanterelle called Cantharellus cinnabarinus. All chanterelles have false gills that are veined and forked and decurrent, meaning that they run down the stem of the mushroom. However, the so-called smooth chanterelle, Cantharellus confluens, often only has some wrinkles on the underside of its cap that are quite shallow, and some of the so-called “Cibarius-like” chanterelles have pretty narrow and deep false gills.
Although there is significant genetic confusion about the “classic” chanterelles that dominate the North Carolina landscape, they are nonetheless safe to eat and have been collected by NC foragers for many, many years. One of the reasons I love living here is that there is a great tradition of foraging and self-reliance among North Carolina natives, and chanterelles are up there with ramps and morels in the lineup of wayback machine Appalachian wild foods that people have gathered for generations.
If you want to find chanterelles in the North Carolina Piedmont, go to oak groves that have wild grape and running cedar in the undergrowth, and stomp around for a while and you’re sure to find some in short order. These mushrooms are very easy to spot because of their bright coloration (ranging from yellow-orange in most species, peachy-orange in the case of Cantharellus persicinus, and vermillion red in the case of Cantharellus cinnabarinus). Chanterelles are most likely mycorrhizal, although some mycologists think that they may act as decomposers as well.
In years to come, I imagine that we will get a much clearer picture of the different North Carolina chanterelle species, because not all that long ago, the vast majority of them were simply known as Cantharellus cibarius. Mycologists have determined, however, that the yellow-orange and thin, veiny, and forked false-gilled chanterelles that grow all over the place are in fact something other than Cantharellus cibarius, however as of this writing they are yet unnamed. I think it’s entirely possible that in the future, we will have more than a few species that emerge from the group that people used to call Cantharellus cibarius, but only time and some molecular and genetic study will tell! For now, the chanterelle group remains one of my favorites, and I find them in sufficient abundance to enjoy eating them all year long.
My #5 Edible Mushroom – Lion’s Mane Mushroom, Hericium erinaceus
Season: Late Summer and Fall
The lion’s mane, Hericium erinaceus, is a delicious edible mushroom that can be found in the late summer and fall in North Carolina, although it sometimes appears earlier in the season. It almost breaks my heart to put this mushroom at #5 in my list, because it’s super delicious and pretty to boot. The only trick is getting them out of the trees they grow in, and I have missed out on a few of these mushrooms in the past since they were too high up! I have since remedied this situation by designing a mushroom saw with a thin piece of climbing rope, a beanbag, and a length of fine chain that works pretty well for sawing lion’s mane off of trees (although my aim isn’t perfect and I have little experience with grappling-hook-style devices).
This mushroom is characterized by its multitude of white drooping teeth, which makes it look like an albino lion’s mane or Santa Claus’s beard. As it matures, Hericium erinaceus‘s teeth develop some yellowing, largely because the fruiting body is dried out. This is not a sign that the entire mushroom is toast; just remove the yellowed bits and go to town on the rest of it! Lion’s mane grows in a single ball of fungus, and the teeth all originate from one lump of fruiting body. This feature is important because this mushroom’s relatives (which are also edible, btw), often have spiny, branchy bodies, as opposed to originating from a single dallop of fungal tissue festooned with teeth.
Lion’s mane is saphrophytic and parasitic, and it grows on both living and dying hardwoods, particularly oak trees. If you’re looking for Hericium erinaceus, you’re best served to hold your head high, because they’re often perched in gashes, nooks, and other blemishes high up in hardwood trees.
Hericium erinaceus has a couple relatives that live in the NC Piedmont, Hericium coralloides and Hericium americanum. In a future post, I will run through these different spiny, toothy, and delicious edible mushrooms, but for now, suffice it to say that the lion’s mane is not the only edible mushroom that has these features in North Carolina.
Hericium erinaceus is a delicious edible mushroom, and it has a flavor that is very much like crab meat or abalone. There is one fellow I know who calls lion’s mane “crabalone mushroom,” and I think it’s an apt moniker. It must be cooked thoroughly, because it’s rather tough, and it’s best to cook them at no more than medium-high heat in order to give the fruiting body a chance to cook through and through before the delicate little teeth start to char.
My personal favorite preparation of lion’s mane is to saute them liberally and then add some pulled pork seasoning/sauce right in the last couple minutes. When you pull apart the teeth and stringy inner fruiting body, it mimics pulled pork extraordinarily well!
Hericium erinaceus, like many edible mushrooms, has significant health benefits. In recent years, research has revealed that Hericium erinaceus has nerve regenerative properties, aiding in the re-myleination and differentiation of neurons. Clinical studies have shown that people who take Hericium erinaceus as a supplement experienced improvements in memory and cognitive functioning. Other studies have shown that Hericium erinaceus may improve mood and reduce the incidence of anxiety and depression. Although clinical research on these effects is still in its early phases, it’s quite possible that eating or taking lion’s mane supplements will do both your belly and your brain some good!
My #4 Edible Mushroom – Hen of the Woods or Maitake, Grifola frondosa
Oh hen of the woods, how I do love thee. Grifola frondosa, also called maitake by the Japanese, is beautiful polypore mushroom is a hallmark of fall in the North Carolina Piedmont, and it grows at the bases of grandfather oak trees. Its common name comes from the fact that it looks like a big feathery ball of fungus, sort of like an oversized hen! The color of this mushroom is tan to brown, and the tips of its feathers are darker than the interior. The underside of the little leaves of fungus are white. This is yet another mushroom I will no doubt write about in more depth, because it sure does deserve it!
From an edibility standpoint, Grifola frondosa is downright delicious. When it’s fresh, it often has a faintly chlorine-like odor, but this aroma cooks off promptly, and the mushroom is chewy, meaty, and has a very agreeable flavor. It dehydrates well and is durable enough to be added to a variety of dishes that take a good bit of cooking. Some mushrooms are simply too delicate to hit hard with heat for too long, but maitake can take it!
The Japanese name for Grifola frondosa, maitake, is one of my all-time favorite common mushroom names, because it means “the dancing mushroom,” ostensibly because mushroom hunters who encounter it do a little jig of joy when they come across this superior edible mushroom. If you’d like to eat this mushroom but haven’t had the good fortune to collect it from the wild, it’s cultivated commercially and is readily available at many Asian markets and upscale grocery stores.
Grifola frondosa is not just delicious, it is also a very promising medicinal mushroom. Recent research on using maitake mycelium to treat cancer patients revealed that people undergoing chemotherapy and radiation responded very well to maitake mycelium supplements, in part because the mushroom boosts immune responses and helps patients recover from the negative side effects of cancer treatment. Laboratory studies have found that Grifola frondosa inhibits the growth of cancer cells as well, so presumably maitake offers two distinct advantages to patients suffering from cancer.
When you find hen of the woods, you should do a little dance yourself and gobble it up (after cooking it thoroughly, of course) and enjoy the fact that it makes an excellent meal that is also good for your health!
My #3 Edible Mushroom – Hedgehog Mushroom, Hydnum rapandum
Season: Late Spring, Summer, and Early Fall
I am particularly fond of the hedgehog mushroom, Hydnum rapandum, in part because I really love saying “Hydnum rapandum.” It just rolls off the tongue so sweetly and brings a smile to my face every time I say it! It’s sort of like Volvariella volvacea, which I think is one of the sexiest phrases in human language.
In addition to enjoying saying its name, I like Hydnum rapandum because it is an excellent edible mushroom that’s quite common in the North Carolina Piedmont. It is a cream-colored fruiting body that grows on the ground, and hedgehog mushrooms have a profusion of little delicate teeth under its cap that sadly slough off pretty easily. I usually pick and stash my hedgehog mushrooms carefully to avoid losing out on the tasty little teeth! Hydnum rapandum grows with oak and beech like gangbusters, and I frequently find it in my chanterelle haunts. Hydnum rapandum is usually not quite as abundant as chanterelle mushrooms, but it always makes my day when I find some.
These mushrooms are crunchy and nutty and are durable enough to take serious cooking. They do not need much fiddling or fussing when it comes to processing, although sometimes the teeth get little bits of duff stuck in them that needs to be carefully brushed off. When they are damaged or cut, Hydnum rapandum often stain a cheerful burnt-orange color.
In addition to their various culinary graces, hedgehogs are nice because they’re less prone to be bug-riddled than other edible mushroom species. This is not to say that they’re totally immune from the horror of maggot-butt, wherein the entire stem of the mushroom is full of little holes and writhing white worms, but they’re not as bad as some other mushrooms in this respect.
My #2 Edible Mushroom – Black Trumpet Mushroom, Craterellus fallax
Season: Summer and Fall
The black trumpet mushroom, Craterellus fallax, is one of North Carolina’s most popular wild mushrooms. Although common and frequently found growing in groups of many individuals, they’re a bit difficult to spot because they’re black and usually rather dainty in size, often no more than a couple inches in height. Stacked up against their relatives in the Cantharellus genus, black trumpets are small and hard to spot, but they sure are worth the trouble of hunting for them!
Craterellus fallax is also known as “the horn of plenty” and a French species of them goes by the dubious name “the trumpet of death,” but that’s not because they’re poisonous, it’s just because they look like baby black trumpets, and I guess the French thought they looked a little ominous! In general, black trumpets look like little funneled tubes of blackish mushroom, often with faint hints of tan or slightly pinkish coloration on the outside of the tube. Black trumpets often have a curled cap and wavy margin that makes some of them resemble little black flowers.
Craterellus fallax has a fruity-earthy aroma that can be extracted when the mushrooms are dried and then rehydrated in warm water, and this flavor is very nice although not overpoweringly fruity in most instances. They are chewy in a good way, and their texture makes them pretty easy to cook, especially when stacked up against chanterelle mushrooms. Black trumpets are, in my opinion, really good on top of things as a delicious garnish, and I usually saute them with a little butter and white wine until they’re slightly crisp, and then I put a heap of them on top of white meats (fish, chicken cutlets), roasted eggplant, or marinated and grilled slices of tempeh.
Craterellus fallax grows with oak and beech, although I’ve also found it in pine groves with nary a hardwood in sight. It is reasonably common in the late summer through fall in the North Carolina Piedmont, although given it’s diminutive size and propensity for looking like a small hole in the ground, it’s possible to spend an entire season looking for them and still come up empty-handed.
When they finish growing, Craterellus fallax often dry up instead of decomposing immediately, and so every now and again I find patches of little black peely things that were once beautiful black trumpets. Although this causes significant heartache, I simply mark the spot on my GPS and return after the next big rain in hopes that a second fruiting will occur. Failing that, there’s always next mushroom season!
My #1 Edible Mushroom – Morels of Any Freaking Sort, Morchella angusticeps, Morchella esculentoides, Morchella virginiana, Morchella diminutiva, and Morchella semilibera
Season: Spring (Typically 3-4 Weeks in Late March-April)
I have written extensively about morels on this blog in the past, and so if you want some tips on how and where to find North Carolina’s different species of morels, I suggest you look at that series of posts from earlier this spring. In a nutshell, morels are awesome. They are meaty and have a sort of earthy flavor that is wonderfully rich. Their almost rubbery flesh cooks up extremely well, and although they’ll make you ill if you eat them raw, they’re among North America’s most coveted edible mushrooms.
Few things make people act weirder than morel season, and I am no exception. In fact, this past morel season (which was not a good one for me, in that I only found a small handful of them), I was forbidden from looking at mushroom-related social media for a couple weeks because I was experiencing some serious morel mushroom envy that reached an almost unhealthy fever pitch!
Morels in North Carolina are saprophytic and mycorrhizal, and they grow near tulip poplar, elm trees, and hickory primarily. There are basically two large divisions of morels: the smaller, more symmetrical black morels (Morchella angusticeps) and the wacky, zany, all-over-the-place and large yellow or blond morels (Morchella esculentoides, Morchella virginiana). Also, North Carolina is home to the half-free morel (Morchella semilibera) and a tiny little yellow morel called Morchella diminutiva, which goes by the common name “hickory chick” in the American Midwest.
No matter what sort of morel you’re in possession of, you’re bound to enjoy them. These edible mushrooms are a springtime delight that heralds the beginning of North Carolina’s long and bountiful mushroom season, which is yet another reason I have an extreme fondness for them! They’re a welcome sign of good times to come!
Concluding Thoughts on North Carolina Edible Mushrooms
Now that I have run through my trusty favorites, I must note that this list is certainly not exhaustive and I already feel the sting of selection, because my taste for different edible mushrooms fluctuates and changes depending on my mood and what’s in season.
There are plenty of cool and delicious edible mushrooms in North Carolina’s forests, and this list has some glaring omissions, for example the sheep’s head polypore, Albatrellus ovinus, the oyster mushroom complex (various Pleurotus species), aborted Entoloma mushrooms, the black-staining polypore (Meripilus sumstinea), the blewitt (Clitocybe nuda), the fish cap Lactarius mushrooms (Lactarius volemus and Lactarius corrugis), and many others.
At the end of the day, it would be a fool’s errand to list every last great edible mushroom in North Carolina, and all of these above are extremely well known and beloved by many in the mushroom fanatic community of the NC Piedmont. However, I hope this list may help you when it comes time to sort through your own catalog of favorite edible mushrooms! Happy hunting everyone!