Wild Walk: Coral Mushrooms

Mushroom - Coral 2012 10-7 (3)by Jill Henderson – Show Me Oz

Fall is here and we finally got enough rain to kick off the fall mushroom season.  Among the many foragable fungi available in the fall, my favorite are coral mushrooms.  Not only are corals super easy to identify, even for the novice mushroom hunter, but they are downright beautiful and oh, so good to eat.

Here in the Ozarks, coral mushrooms are found in oak/hickory forests and along their edges.  Typically, corals are in abundance during the months of September and October – depending on moisture and temperature levels.  I don’t expect to see any corals until we get enough rain to really soak the ground and daytime temperatures drop into the 60’s.

There are numerous species of coral mushroom here in Missouri and throughout the U.S. and one should not try and lump them all together into the same proverbial basket.  For while most corals are completely edible, some species may not taste very good and some may cause gastrointestinal upset.  Likewise, the novice forager should keep in mind that even the most perfectly safe edible can sometimes cause digestive distress in certain people.

There are two rules when trying out any mushroom that is new to you:

Rule #1  – Be 100% sure that you have positively identified the mushroom before eating it.  I can’t stress this enough.  Like any wild edible or medicinal plant, proper identification is paramount.  Be sure to check out the links provided in this article for more information on corals, what they look like and how to identify them.

Rule #2  – When trying a new wild mushroom for the first time, start by consuming a small portion that has been fully cooked (it’s best not to eat raw mushrooms unless you know what you’re doing). Wait at least 24 hours and if you don’t have any digestive problems, you should be good to go.

If you are new to foraging mushrooms, you’ll probably want to start with Crown-Tipped Corals (Artomyces pyxidatus) formerly known as Clavicorona pyxidata, which unlike other coral species, grows only on dead deciduous wood.  Normally, this would be an awesome identification tool, but only if you were actually able see the dead wood in every single case.  In my experience, crown-tipped corals often appear to be growing on the ground when they are actually growing on deeply buried wood, such as the rotting roots of dead trees and stumps.  The good news is that once you learn to identify corals correctly, gathering them is super easy and very safe for the novice forager.

A large, crown-tipped coral mushroom that does not have the distinct

The Missouri Department of Conservation webpage describes Crown-Tipped Corals this way:

“Fruiting body branched, with crownlike tips; yellowish, becoming tannish or pinkish; texture tough; with a very short, thin stalk. Spore print white. Spores magnified elliptical, smooth, colorless.

Lookalikes: Other species of coral mushrooms, some of which may cause gastrointestinal upset. Important clues for identifying a crown-tipped coral are: It is one of the few corals that grow on wood; if you take a tiny taste, it will be peppery; and the tips are crownlike, like the pinnacles of a tiny castle.”

Also, keep in mind that crown-tipped corals are generally tan to golden yellow, but they can also range in color from light-pink to classic-coral.  When gathering corals avoid any that have a strong chemical smell (they should smell like sweet, mushroomy compost) and those that are slimy or have any bit of soft or gelatinous spots, particularly on the cut stems.  Gather only very fresh specimens, which should be firm and bright.  Pass on those that are dull, bruised or obviously aging, and any that turn brown after handling.

Corals come in a wide array of colors: from light tan to golden and from soft pink to coral.

To harvest coral mushrooms, use a sharp knife to cut the stem as close to the ground as possible.  Be gentle while handling corals, they are as delicate as they look!  As  you gather each mushroom, take a moment to thoroughly inspect each one and to remove as much dirt as possible in the field.  I sometimes carry a small clean paintbrush in my basket for just this purpose.  Cleaning your mushrooms in the field will save you a ton of work later on!

When foraging mushrooms, gather your harvest into a sturdy and breathable container, such as a basket or cloth bag. Piling mushrooms into a plastic bag is the worst thing you can do.   Small buckets with handles are good containers, but only if you drill holes into the bottom and sides first.

Once you get your bounty home, you will want to sort and clean them.  It is often said that one should avoid wetting mushrooms, but I find that a quick dip-and-swish in a sink full of clean water really gets the grit out corals without breaking too many of the tender branches.

Large coral mushroom cleaned, dried and ready to eat!  Photo copyright Jill Henderson

Once clean, the mushrooms are set on cloth or paper towels for one to several hours to dry completely (mostly because I don’t want ice crystals forming on them in the freezer!). After they’re dry to the touch, I chop them up, put them into quart-sized zip-top bags and freeze them.  No blanching and no pre-cooking needed.  And when dinner time rolls around I grab a bag, give it a good thwack to break up the chunks, take as much or as little as I need and then just toss the bag back in the freezer!  Done!

If you like mushrooms, I probably don’t need to tell you how to use them. But if you’re new to mushroom foraging, I will assure you that you can use corals in any way you would use any other kind of mushroom.  My personal favorite for corals is in mushroom and chicken soup. Double yum!

I know you’re ready to hit the woods, but before you head out be sure to check out Mushroom Expert and MDC’s links on identifying coral-tipped mushrooms. Also, American Mushrooms also has a great photo gallery for corals. And while not specifically about coral mushrooms, this USDA Field Guide to Common Macrofungi in Eastern Forests and Their Ecosystem Functions is an interesting and informative look at the various fungi and their role in a healthy ecosytem.

Until next time, happy foraging!

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17 responses to “Wild Walk: Coral Mushrooms

  1. The picture of the orange coral mushroom in your hand, right above the the quote from the MDC article, is not Artomyces pyxidata. It looks like some species of Ramaria.

    • Thanks for the observation, Lisa. I suppose it could be a Ramaria. It does look a bit like them. Unfortunately, that mushroom has long been eaten and no way to tell for sure now. The photo isn’t good enough to zoom in any further. Hopefully, I’ll have plenty of chances to look for the differences more closely during this fall’s coral hunting season! Thanks for the heads up.

  2. I don’t know what species of coral it is (there’s whole books on corals alone), but I’m certain it’s not Artomyces pyxidatus, even without being able to zoom in on it.
    Here’s a link to a big, mature crown-tipped coral:
    Artomyces pyxidatus
    The overall impression is pretty similar to the one you have, but the characteristic crown tips are diagnostic (and persistent).
    Even very young small ones have clearly observable crown tips:
    Artomyces pyxidatus
    I can see why you could mistake yours for it. Part of the problem could be that the image in the MDC book–which many people have as their first mushroom guide–is ALSO not A. pyxidata.
    In my experience, I have never found it growing anywhere other than perched on well-rotted logs.

    • Thanks, Lisa. Yes, I can see the difference. And I have definitely harvested those. Very distinct crowns. I don’t have any mushroom books (blush), but rather rely on my mycologist friends and a couple of well-regarded mycology sites for confirmations of species. And for you novices out there – don’t ever eat mushrooms that you can’t 100% positively identify, particularly the gilled mushrooms! Learn how to take spore prints and consult with your local mycology society before eating any new mushrooms.

  3. Whoa! I didn’t realize the links were going to show the full images! Didn’t mean to overwhelm your post, sorry!
    “Mushrooms Demystified” is a pretty great book, and there’s always the Audubon guide, but nowadays you have to check everything to see if it’s been put into a new genus and had a name change. It’s exhausting.

  4. Thanks, Lisa – I’ve heard that Mushrooms Demystified was good and I love reading guidebooks, just haven’t gotten to mushrooms yet. And no worries about the link pics, it’s part of the fun and might help others identify corals!

  5. Lenora Wuattoux

    Great article. Appreciate the information.

  6. Loved it well done Doug Sharp Chocorua N.H

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  10. Thanks great information

  11. Thank You for your help! My husband found these mushrooms, at least he said that’s what they are but I wasn’t sure. I found them here and learned a LOT!! Marked your page in case I need You again. Thanks again.

    • You are so welcome, Donna! I love it when people find good and useful info on my site! I love the coral mushrooms. They are so easy to use and in my humble opinion are among the best-flavored shrooms out there! Happy hunting!

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