The True Chanterelle, Cantharellus spp.
One of the favorite targets of Arizona mushroom collectors is the chanterelle, known for its delicious flavor and distinctive fruity fragrance. These can occur in large numbers in a good year. Both the August and September forays of the Arizona Mushroom Club in 2013 came across moderate numbers of this choice edible, some of which are shown at right.
Like a lot of mushrooms, the scientific taxonomy of the chanterelles is in some disarray, which has only been heightened by the advent of DNA sequencing. The most commonly collected species in this country, and the only one listed in Scott Bates’ Arizona Macrofungi Checklist, is generally called C. cibarius. However, that may change in future, especially for the Western distribution of the species.
This mushroom is particularly prized for its culinary qualities in soups, cream sauces, and omelets. It can be dried and ground into a useful flavoring powder, but does not reconstitute well from the dried state. If preservation of the entire mushroom is desired, it can more successfully be blanched or half-sautéed and then frozen. It can also be pickled or canned with good results. It should be cooked before eating, as the raw mushroom is unpleasantly peppery, and may give sensitive individuals an upset stomach.
The chanterelle is recognized by the following characteristics:
- The species is mycorrhizal, growing in the dirt near living trees. Douglas firs (Pseudotsuga menziesii) are a particular favorite, but it is found promiscuously with conifers and deciduous trees.
- In the Arizona mountains, it is typically found from mid-July to mid-September above 7000 feet. It seems to favor steep, north-facing, relatively shady hillsides, presumably because these retain moisture better than other habitats in Arizona’s dry climate.
- Patches of chanterelles grow gregariously but individually. Two or three fruiting bodies are occasionally seen growing in immediate contact with each other, but large racemose clusters of mushrooms connected to a single stem or bulb are not characteristic of this genus.
- There is a uniform, conspicuous golden yellow color, much like an egg yolk. Orange and pink tints may be seen, but do not predominate, at least in the species or variants found in Arizona.
- The fresh mushroom gives off a distinctive apricot or peach odor.
- There is a flat or even funnel-shaped cap, with a rather wavy edge that may be rolled under at the margin.
- Stem is moderately thick, may be tapered, and measures approximately as long as the cap is wide.
- When cutting the mushroom, there is white, firm flesh. No staining of the flesh is seen when sliced or bruised.
- It throws off a white or light yellow spore print.
Important: There are relatively thick, shallow, widely spaced, blunt-edged ridges at the undersurface of the cap. (See adjacent photograph). These are rather robust, and difficult to remove from the cap without tearing it. They are decurrent, i.e. running down the stem, and show irregular forking and interconnecting veins between the ridges. This is perhaps the single most useful characteristic for distinguishing the chanterelle from its imitators.
False Chanterelle (Hygrophoropsis aurantiaca)
This impostor looks very much like the true chanterelle, and can be found at the same times and places. The picture at right shows a true chanterelle and a false one side by side. These two mushrooms were found side by side under Ponderosa pines (Pinus ponderosa) on the Mogollon Rim in September 2013. They were no more than five feet apart, and it would have been very easy for a careless collector to throw them both into the basket.
The false chanterelle is not deadly poisonous, and a few people eat them with no difficulty. However, they are bitter and vastly inferior to the true chanterelle in taste. They contain high amounts of the sugar alcohol arabitol, which can lead to gastrointestinal distress for some people.
The major distinguishing characteristics are as follows:
Under the cap, there are true gills rather than ridges, as in the adjoining photo. They are deeper, thinner, straighter, more closely spaced, sharper-edged, and flimsier than the ridges of the chanterelle, and can be pulled off much more easily. They show rather uniform peripheral forking, without the meandering interconnections of the true chanterelle.
- The stem tends to be longer and thinner relative to the size of the cap, and may also be rather tortuous.
- The flesh of the cap is thinner and softer than the firm, meaty chanterelle. It should have an orange tint that is not seen in a true chanterelle.
- Its overall hue is distinctively more orange than yellow, as the side-by-side photograph above illustrates.
The cap has a target-shaped configuration, known as graded or zoned coloration. It is darker centrally and lighter at the periphery. The photo at right is not optimal for showing this distinction, but gives you an idea of the difference. (The true chanterelle is to the left, and the false to the right.)
- When dry, the cap of the false chanterelle will have a slightly fuzzier, felt-like texture compared to the smoother surface of the true chanterelle. It also tends to be more uniformly round and less undulant or wavy.
In most other respects, such as the white spore print, decurrent gills, slightly in-rolled edge, and habitat, it is essentially the same as the true chanterelle. It is thought to be saprobic (feeding on dead matter) rather than mycorrhizal (growing in symbiosis with live tree roots), but can apparently survive on decaying litter and humus. This means it can be found growing from the dirt of the forest floor like the true chanterelle, and need not be attached to any identifiable piece of wood.
Be on the alert for this one, and closely examine the gills of every supposed chanterelle you pick. Here’s one more picture of the undersurface of the true chanterelle (L) next to the impostor (R) to prepare you for the coming season:
Scaly-vase Chanterelle (Gomphus spp.)
This meaty, firm mushroom also fruits at the same times and places as the true chanterelle. Like the false chanterelle, it is not deadly poisonous, but it has an unpleasant sour taste and may cause significant gastrointestinal symptoms if eaten. There are anecdotes of this species being pickled and eaten in Russia, but that mushroom-obsessed nation seems to be affected by a mass psychological derangement with regard to the edibility of many species, and I strongly recommend not following their example. It’s an attractive mushroom, but should stay well away from your dinner table.
The accompanying photo shows several examples found under mixed conifers on the Mogollon Rim in late July, 2013. This was a loose cluster of perhaps a dozen individuals spread over an area about twenty feet in diameter. The thick funnel-shaped stipe and scaly cap are well demonstrated.
There are multiple rather similar members of the genus Gomphus, again with the typical taxonomic controversies that inflame the “lumpers” and “splitters” of the scientific world. The most commonly described member of the genus is probably G. floccosus. The photographed specimens here, with their especially prominent raised scales and less deeply depressed cap, are typical of the Southwestern version that some assign to G. bonarii or G. kaufmanii. However, these days the taxonomic authorities advocate that all the North American Gomphus except the “pig’s ear” (G. clavatus) of the northern and eastern parts of the continent should be considered the same species, and assigned to a new genus: Turbinellus floccosus.
Major distinguishing characteristics are as follows:
There are thick, blunt-edged hymenial ridges that are even firmer, less prominent, and less mobile than the ridges on the true chanterelle, let alone the the other mimics in this list. They are notably decurrent, extending even farther down the stipe than on the true chanterelle. They also have a more nodular appearance. A close-up photo is at right.
- The stipe is thick and meaty, with a tapered vase-like shape that is substantially wider at the top than at the base. True chanterelles can show this shape as well, but not as uniformly from one individual to another as is seen with the genus Gomphus.
- The coloration is more distinctively orange on the cap than yellow, and darker and more heterogeneous than on the true chanterelle. By contrast, the ridges and stem have a conspicuously off-white coloration that is quite unlike the uniform golden color of the chanterelle.
The cap is usually depressed centrally, appearing funnel-shaped, with coarse dark scales. These can be sessile (flat) or stick up quite prominently, depending on the age of the specimen, and perhaps the species if you are a taxonomic “splitter”. The cap is typically more rounded and uniform than the chanterelle, with less undulation and with little or no in-rolling of the margin.
- The spore print is brown rather than white.
The Jack-O’-Lantern Mushroom (Omphalotus spp.)
This mimic of the true chanterelle is probably the most seriously toxic of all its lookalikes. While not known to be deadly, eating it is said to result in several days of very unpleasant symptoms that may even require hospitalization.
I have not yet seen this one in the wild in Arizona, so I had to borrow some photographs from WikiCommons. This is a pretty widespread genus, so its possible presence must always be considered. The Bates checklist confirms that O. olearius has been collected in Arizona.
Distinguishing characteristics are as follows:
The decurrent gills are thin, sharp-edged, deep, closely spaced, and flimsy, as seen in H. auriantica and as distinct from the blunt ridges of Cantharellus. However, they do not show significant forking. (See adjacent photo.)
- This mushroom is a wood-rotting saprobe and is never found growing from dirt unless there is buried wood underneath the surface.
- Numerous fruiting bodies may be found growing in tightly connected racemose clusters. Chanterelles grow in a much more scattered, individual distribution, even when found in large gregarious patches in a given locality.
- The flesh is orange rather than white.
- The spore print is distinctly yellow rather than white, off-white, or light yellow.
Most spectacularly, this genus contains a phosphorescent compound that causes it to glow with a faint greenish light on a dark night (see adjacent photo). This phenomenon is said to be more common in the Eastern and European varieties than the Western, but if you really want to key it out, this may help you.
Waxy Caps/Witch’s Hats (Hygrocybe/Hygrophorus spp.)
One other potential chanterelle mimic that is worth mentioning are the waxy caps of the genus Hygrocybe and Hygrophorus. There are a lot of them, with a great degree of variability in size, shape, and color, but telling individual species apart can often be a challenge.
A number of these mushrooms that grow in the same habitat and season as true chanterelles are similarly yellow-colored, or have orange or red coloration when young that fades to yellow in senescence. Young specimens will never be mistaken for a chanterelle, but as the cap opens up and flattens with age, they may mimic a chanterelle at first glance. Among the Hygrocybe, potential imitators include H. punicea, H. flavescens, H. coccinea, H. conica, and H. miniata. Even the distinctive green parrot mushroom, H. psittacina, can show a yellowish appearance in old age that could fool a novice chanterelle collector. In the genus Hygrophorus, an Arizona collector might well see H. speciosus, as in the pictures below.
The collection of H. speciosus in this photo gallery, found in the same place (the Mogollon Rim) and on the same day (late August 2014) as a good quantity of true chanterelles, is a species I have seen many times in Arizona, typically under Ponderosa pine. Young ones have bright orange or scarlet, conical, viscid caps that give it the common name “witch’s hat”. Notice how the whitish stem and gills become darker and yellower in age, while the brilliantly colored cap becomes flatter, lighter, more muted, and yellower at the same time. The widely spaced, deep, adnexed to only slightly decurrent gills with peripheral lamellulae (short gills) should be enough to distinguish this species from a chanterelle even in its yellow-tinted old age. It is said to be a good edible, but I have not tried it.
As always, comments, corrections, or additions are welcome. Have fun looking for this conspicuous, delicious and relatively common member of Arizona’s edible fungal flora!