Thursday, 1 August 2013

Finding Wild Mushrooms: Foraging in Lee County, Alabama

Today we hear from Brian Folt. Inspired by tips on this blog, he took a foray close to his home in Alabama and stumbled upon Cinnabar and Smooth Chanterelles. He describes the experience below while providing many descriptive tips for those of us beginning to forage.  

Brian Folt is a Ph.D. student at Auburn University, where he studies amphibian and reptile ecology. Recently he has also become interested in organic farming and sustainable eating. Here he shares his recent experiences foraging and cooking local edible mushrooms from Lee County, Alabama. All photographs in the post are Brian’s, and if you have questions or comments please leave them in the comments section at the end of the post.

Admittedly, I have little experience foraging for mushrooms. While attending college at Ohio University in the Appalachian foothills of southeastern Ohio, I was fortunate to stumble upon morels (Morchella sp.) on a few occasions. These experiences were sparse over the years, and usually only incidentally while out searching for vertebrate wildlife.

In recent years, I have since moved to Auburn, Alabama, and I have yet to make a concerted effort to forage for edible mushrooms in the area. Auburn sits at the southwestern terminus of the Piedmont physiographic province, just above the Coastal Plain. Word of the mouth around here suggests that morels are much less common here relative to other areas of Appalachia. However, my friend Chris Matechik recently found morels in the Auburn City limits, and my interest on the subject was slightly revived. We had discussed going out mushroom hunting together a number of times over beers, but neither of us had taken the initiative to coordinate the effort. (Such is the case with the vast majority of plans hatched from alcohol.)

Chris Matechick foraging around Auburn 
Then I caught wind that chanterelles are fruiting in abundance just a few miles away near Athens, Georgia. We have been enjoying a wet summer in the Auburn area as well, and, given Sean’s nice blog post, I figured conditions might be favorable for finding a formidable mushroom haul around these parts. So, I sent Matechek a message and tried to rally a tag-team mushroom hunting mission. Chris is a tremendous natural historian who also maintains interests in foraging for plants and mushrooms. Whenever I get out into the field with him, I always enjoy his wide base of knowledge, and I was hoping to lean on and learn from his mushroom identification skills.

With Sean’s tips in mind, Chris and I visited a tract of secondary forest characterized by mixed deciduous and evergreen tree species, located within spitting distance of our homes. Immediately upon arrival we hit pay dirt when Chris spotted an aggregation of Cinnabar Chanterelles (Cantharellus cinnabarinus) poking their caps up through the odd pine needle. He explained to me that this species can at least partially be identified by its red coloration and decurrent gills beneath the cap that transition smoothly onto the stem. As I understand it, these gills are characterized as ‘false gills’, because these tissues are derived from the same tissues as the cap (but perhaps others have more correct or thorough understanding of this and can comment below).  It also seems this red coloration may result from the presence of carotenoid compounds.

Cinnabar Chanterelles (Cantharellus cinnabarinus)
Shortly thereafter we continued through the forest, following a gently worn trail through a riparian zone until transitioning into a fairly open hillside pine forest. At this point, we were excited to note the odd Smooth Chanterelle (Cantharellus lateritius)! And as Chris told me, when you find one of these mushrooms, keep a keen eye out for more! At our site, these mushrooms were patchily distributed throughout the forest in small aggregations of 5–10 fruiting bodies, and over the course of twenty minutes we both collected a nice haul. Unlike the tastier Golden Chanterelle (Cantharellus cibarius), the Smooth Chanterelle lacks definitive gills and has a smooth surface under the caps. We selected the fresh, clean fruiting bodies and removed them by clipping at the stem base with a pocket knife. A small brush can be used to gently detach any dirt that may be on the ‘shroom. We avoided older, decaying individuals, in hopes that they would reproduce and continue the population at this site.

Chris and I returned to our respective homes, and, after an afternoon siesta, we reconvened at my place to cook up our catch. We sautéed the mushrooms in olive oil along with white onions and garlic, and further cooked them in vegetable stock and cream. We mixed this sauce into cooked spaghetti, adding lemon juice, salt, and pepper, and added a few tomato slices for more substance. The cream and vegetable stock were organic, and the tomatoes were organically grown from my garden. Our recipe was loosely adapted from here. I will say the lemon juice was a choice addition, offering a welcomed zing to the flavor, but the mushrooms themselves really shined throughout the meal, providing a veritable feast of flavor and texture to my tongue.

We enjoyed this fine meal with a bottle of Chris’ home-made muscadine wine, a beverage produced from three local wild graps: Vitis rotundifolia, Vitis munsonia, and Vitus volpes.

After using about half our catch in the above pasta dish, we dried the remaining mushrooms in a dehydrator and are saving them for a future meal.

In conclusion, this exercise was an extremely fun and fruitful use of my Saturday afternoon. I learned much about the natural history of the regional fungi fauna, particularly those delectable edibles, and I hope to expand on this base with more experiences in the future. In particular, I am told that Cinnabar Chanterelles fruit during late summer and fall, so I am optimistic to cross paths with this species again here shortly. Once again, thanks are also deserved to Sean Sterrett, whose recent post inspired me to initiate our search, and Olivia Sylvester for maintaining this fascinating blog.


  1. Great post! Here is my recent post about the various species of mushroms we found and how to tell them apart.

    I believe I did a bad job explaining false gills. Michael Kuo does it better

    "Some Chanterelles and Trumpets feature "false gills" on the underside of the cap, and separating this feature from true gills can be confusing for beginning mushroom identifiers. I recommend buying the common Button Mushroom (Agaricus bisporus) found in grocery stores, which has true gills, and torturing a specimen or two with a toothpick or knife point; you will soon discover that true gills are individual, plate-like or blade-like things, structurally separate from one another and from the flesh of the cap and the stem. The false gills on chanterelles, by comparison, are not structurally distinct units, and represent mere folds in the mushroom's under surface. Assessing "true" or "false" gills is especially important if one wants to eat chanterelles, since the poisonous Jack O'Lantern Mushroom is a look-alike with true, rather than false, gills."

    Kuo, M. (2006, February). Glossary of mycological terms Retrieved from the MushroomExpert.Com Web site:

    1. Wait just a minute...the mushroom foraging book I have says to never eat a mushroom with gills. Now you're saying that Button Mushrooms have gills. What gives?1!

    2. Chris Matechik*: It occurred to me that I misspelled your last name above. Sorry, mate!

      Dave: "All generalizations are false, including this one."

  2. Hi Chris, thank you for the reference and the link to your blog post. I hear from experts that gills and false gills are easy to tell apart, for us new foragers it can be tricky! Thanks for the tips and I look forward to reading more about your food adventures.


  3. Hi! I know very little about mushrooms other than I've never tasted one I didn't like. However, and this is a big however, I've never eaten one that didn't come from a restaurant or grocery store. A couple of days ago I discovered this huge "something" in my yard that I think might be a mushroom of some kind. After posting the pictures on FaceBook, several people have commented that they think it might be edible. Can anybody help identify these, please? I've googled mushrooms, and some pictures look right and some don't. I've never been on this site before and am having trouble uploading my pictures. I've tried using the upload icon at the bottom left of the comment area and I've tried dragging and dropping, but nothing is showing up. Any advice?

  4. Dear Karen, 

    Thank you for stopping by the blog. Wild mushrooms should not be eaten unless you can confirm with the help of an expert that they are edible. I am not an expert on mushrooms and I suggest you send an email to John Harris who has extensive experience ID'ing mushrooms; here is the link to his blog and email:


  5. Dear Olivia,
    Thanks so much for your reply and advice. After reading what I have about how easily the poison ones can be mistaken for the edible ones, I had already determined I wouldn't be "sampling" them!