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Chanterelle Dreams: The Secrets of One of the Most Coveted Mushrooms

There are undoubtedly many reasons why chanterelles are at the top of the mushroom heap in popularity, but chief among them is their great flavor.

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The question remains regarding the possible impact of over-harvesting contributing to a decline in chanterelle production in our forests. This debate has, at its root, the observed reduction in chanterelle production from forests in industrialized areas of Europe. This decline, reported since the 1980s, has likely been in place much longer. The causes of the diminished chanterelle harvest have not been proven, but several strong positions have received most of the attention. The first is the contribution of acid rain on the growth of mycorrhizal fungi. The second is the increased levels of nitrogen in the atmosphere and increased use of nitrogenous fertilizers on forests. In controlled studies, trees grown with additional fertilizer tend to reject their mycorrhizal partners because they no longer require the contribution of extra nutrients, so there's no reason for the trees to share their food pantry.

One question remaining is what effect, if any, does an annual heavy harvest of the mushrooms have on long-term mushroom production? At this point the studies looking at this have shown no significant decline in mushroom production from regu¬lar harvesting of mushrooms. The removal of fruiting bodies does not dimin¬ish the refruiting in following years, and the reduction in spores released by mushrooms has not been shown to reduce continued fruiting. A study about to be published demonstrates that the vast majority of spores released by a mushroom fall within a few feet of the parent. The act of collecting and carrying mushrooms out of the forest in an open basket while they are dropping spores may vastly improve spore dispersal. A key factor in the future fruiting of mycorrhizal mushrooms seems to be the practice of minimal disturbance to the forest floor by avoiding packing down the soil surface or disturbing the duff layer when collecting mushrooms.

Look for your first chanterelles of the season as summer settles in to stay. In the northeastern United States that means generally by early July; earlier in southern interior sections; and later along the cooler downeast coast, up north, and in the higher elevations. There seems to be a positive correlation between a warm wet spring and a good chanterelle crop, though this is also contingent on the rainfall patterns in the summer. The peak of the season is in mid-August, and they will continue to fruit abundantly in good (meaning rainy) weather until mid-September and occasionally later. The golden chanterelle is a slow-growing, slow-maturing fruiting body. From the onset of a tiny button until the mature cap succumbs to rot may take well in excess of thirty days. One study showed an average life of the fruiting body of forty-five days with some living in excess of ninety days in cool moist weather. Unlike the mega-dump of spores released in a few days as seen in most fleshy mushrooms, chanterelles mature spores slowly in successive layers over a longer period of time. Therefore, if you come upon a cluster of small buttons, leave them in place and return in a few days or a week to collect them in a more mature state. Fortunately, our chanterelles are somewhat resistant to insect invasion. I rarely see chanterelles infested with worms unless they are quite old and even then they are hardly ever riddled. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the abundant slugs that delight in finding the chanterelles a day ahead of me.

Chanterelles typically appear singly, loosely grouped, or scattered across an area of forest floor. Occasionally you will see them growing in small clusters, and in good habitat I also find them growing along a line or arc through the forest for several yards, perhaps following a tree root. In 2007, I came upon a 15-foot sweeping arc of closely spaced golden beauties. There were almost eighty mushrooms in that small arc. Compare this with the toxic jack o'lantern mushroom, a chanterelle look-alike, which grows in large dense clusters from a common base off of buried wood.

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