Mushroom of the Month, July 2018: Golden Chanterelle, Cantharellus spp.

A Field Guide to Mushrooms of the CarolinasHere’s the next entry in our monthly series, Mushroom of the Month, brought to you by Michael W. Hopping, co-author of A Field Guide to Mushrooms of the Carolinas:  A Southern Gateways Guide — this month it’s Golden Chanterelle, Cantharellus spp.

Mushrooms in the wild present an enticing challenge: some are delicious, others are deadly, and still others take on almost unbelievable forms. A Field Guide to Mushrooms of the Carolinas introduces 650 mushrooms found in the Carolinas–more than 50 of them appearing in a field guide for the first time–using clear language and color photographs to reveal their unique features.

A Field Guide to Mushrooms of the Carolinas is available now in both print and ebook editions.

Look for more Mushroom of the Month features on the UNC Press Blog in the months ahead.

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Golden Chanterelle, Cantharellus tenuithrix

Golden Chanterelle, Cantharellus tenuithrix (Photo by Michael W. Hopping)

Golden Chanterelle, Cantharellus spp.

Chanterelle is a familiar name to wild mushroom eaters. It’s a catch-all term signifying a type of fruiting body rather than a particular species. Many varieties are choice table fare. Chanterelles occur from coast to coast and Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. A dozen or more species can be found in the Carolinas. Several, just how many is unclear, comprise a group of culinary all-stars commonly known as the “Golden Chanterelle.”

These are chunky, woodland mushrooms that resemble squash blossoms but smell of apricot. The upper surface of a “flower” is 4-7 cm wide at maturity, ranging in color from egg-yellow to bright orange. Undersurfaces of the “petal” and the upper parts of the solid “flower tube” are wrinkled with radial ridges that look like sanded down gills. (True gills have parallel sides and are very thin in relation to their height. The false gills of chanterelles are short, rounded over, often triangular in cross section.) They can either be the same color as the top or, in some young specimens, whitened.

Confusion about the number of Golden Chanterelle species results from scientific progress. Until the last quarter of the 20th century, identifications primarily rested on visible sorts of evidence. Despite variations in the color of Golden Chanterelles, this wasn’t enough to prove the existence of more than a single species, Cantharellus cibarius, originally described from Europe. But mycologists had their suspicions.

The molecular revolution is powerfully transforming the life sciences. It also causes consternation. Once upon a time Linnaean taxonomy, which gave us Latin names for organisms, brought order to the chaos of common names that changed with locality and language. But today the shoe is on the other foot. Will Cantharellus tenuithrix, C. flavus, C. phasmatis, and C. deceptivus still be recognized in future years? For mushroomers without access to sequencing equipment, it probably doesn’t matter a whole lot. A Golden Chanterelle by any name would taste as sweet—metaphorically speaking.

These were confirmed by the development of technologies capable of reading (sequencing) designated sections of genetic code and then comparing results from any number of specimens. Molecular studies sometimes revealed unexpected kinships between mushrooms. In the case of the Golden Chanterelle, a single species became several. None in America matched C. cibarius. New scientific names were needed.

Mushroom lovers groaned. Name revisions are a pain, and what assurance is there that the latest and greatest will stick? Guidelines for molecular revisions to the tree of life are evolving. Exactly how much dissimilarity between samples is required to separate species? Is assessment of a single snippet of DNA or RNA enough? Significant difference, or lack of it, at that location may not accurately reflect the entire genome. Wouldn’t it be better to compare sequences from multiple sites? We can do that now.

Work on the American species of Golden Chanterelle isn’t entirely conclusive. The lead researcher for much of it, Bart Buyck, found adequate statistical support for genetic distinctiveness in 3 out of 4 proposed cousins of Cantharellus cibarius likely to occur in the Southeast. Two have whitened false gills in youth, but he could only tell them apart on molecular tests. This was also true for specimens with false gills consistently colored like the cap, which might or might not represent a single species. Tests on additional sections of code would be helpful.

The molecular revolution is powerfully transforming the life sciences. It also causes consternation. Once upon a time Linnaean taxonomy, which gave us Latin names for organisms, brought order to the chaos of common names that changed with locality and language. But today the shoe is on the other foot. Will Cantharellus tenuithrix, C. flavus, C. phasmatis, and C. deceptivus still be recognized in future years? For mushroomers without access to sequencing equipment, it probably doesn’t matter a whole lot. A Golden Chanterelle by any name would taste as sweet—metaphorically speaking.

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Michael W. Hopping, a retired physician and author, is a principal mushroom identifier for the Asheville Mushroom Club. You can read his previous blog posts here.