The phrase “the golden hills of California” evokes an image of hills of golden grass, rippling in the wind. But to a mushroom hunter in our verdant, winter rainy season, it can mean something quite different. Greet a new kind of gold: the California golden chanterelle, Cantharellus californicus. Described by David Arora and Susie Dunham in 2008, this monster chanterelle—the largest in the world—has impressed and fed local mushroom hunters for generations. Formerly lumped under the catch-all name of Cantharellus cibarius, but separated out by both morphological characters and distinct DNA differences, just one of these golden beauties can feed a family of four—with leftovers!
In late 2023, the California golden chanterelle, native to California and the northern Baja Peninsula, became our very first state mushroom. It edged out various fungal contenders, including its almost-as-popular, West Coast endemic, toxic lookalike, Omphalotus olivascens, the jack o’ lantern mushroom. Several mushroom species were proposed for consideration within the local mushroom-enthusiast community, and voted upon by members of California mushroom clubs and California mushroom hunters. The winner was presented to the California legislature for official recognition, in a bill introduced by state Assembly member Ash Kalra, D-San Jose, and then passed by the Assembly into law. California joins only a handful of other states with state mushrooms. Oregon was the first to have a golden chanterelle as its state mushroom, the commercially valuable Cantharellus formosus. But ours is bigger.
California golden chanterelles grow from the ground in a mutualistic, mycorrhizal partnership with live oak trees. Their fluted forms stud the sun-dappled oak duff with splashes of gold, and can often be thickly buried beneath it. Chanterelles have an overall golden orange color, shallow gill ridges instead of deep true gills, and white inner flesh. They sometimes show an orange-red staining or bruising or even a type of rot with age and handling. What accounts for such color changes has not been determined, but it should be completely trimmed off before eating the chanterelle.
California golden chanterelles dwarf the competition due to their ongoing growth in the field, a phenomenon referred to as “indeterminate growth,” similar to what is seen in certain tomato species. Most mushrooms, and even most chanterelles, produce a short-lived fruit body with a spore-bearing surface, shed their spores, and then rot away. Cantharellus californicus continues to add fertile layers atop the old—producing spores over a period of weeks or months rather than days, and growing ever larger and more complex in shape over time.
Two other species of chanterelle also occur in the greater Bay Area, from Marin County to Santa Cruz County, but in far lesser numbers: Cantharellus formosus, another one of the golden chanterelles, which has a slimmer form and likes conifer hosts, and the white chanterelle, Cantharellus subalbidus, which is whitish to cream-colored. C. subalbidus, stocky like C. californicus but somewhat smaller, is also found with conifers and in mixed tan oak/madrone woodlands. Only our new state mushroom, the California Golden Chanterelle, grows in association with true oaks. It is found primarily with coast live oaks, Quercus agrifolia, but can also associate with other oak species, including deciduous oak, and even sometimes with tan oak, Notholithocarpus densiflorus.
Fall and winter is the most productive season for California golden chanterelles, but they can appear throughout the spring and even in the summer or early fall in areas of coastal fog drip. Early rains can stimulate the mushroom mycelia to form numerous primordia—knots of tissue representing chanterelles in miniature. Under the right conditions, these primordia become full-blown chanterelles, with time and more water. As local mushroom hunters are well aware, the conditions for the 2023/2024 chanterelle season have been ideal, and the fungal results spectacular.
We may love to eat these massive mushrooms, but other animals, including common fungus devouring insects, seem to eschew them. Strikingly unlike the well-wormed chanterelles from other parts of the country, mushroom maggots are never a problem with these California chanterelles. I have on rare occasions observed a type of millipede in holes on chanterelles, but I suspect that these insect predators are just using the mushroom as hunting habitat and shelter. Even snails and slugs don’t seem to care for the taste of chanterelles.
It’s not just the creepy crawlies in our woods that disdain them. I have never seen evidence of squirrel nibbles on a chanterelle (like we commonly see with king boletes or matsutakes) or deer dining, or even foraging by the otherwise omnivorous, omnipresent feral pigs. Pig trails can pass right by chanterelle patches, but they leave the mushrooms unbitten, although often trampled or rooted in passing. Pigs do eat many other edible mushrooms, including grisettes and mild-flavored russulas.
I guess that just leaves more for us!
The biggest downside to the California giant chanterelle is its sometimes muddy surface and sodden texture. It can be hard to stay clean and dry when you are out in the field for months on end! Although you may have been cautioned to never wash your mushrooms, unless you enjoy the taste of dirt, you will definitely want to wash these. In fact, these “mud-puppies,” as some hunters affectionately call them, are so robust that they can stand up to a good hosing, as long as you keep it to a gentle spray. It is then best to allow them to air-dry for a day or so in a cool place. I place them on newspapers, which helps to draw off that extra water. Once clean and dry, they can be stored for weeks in a refrigerator, in sealed Tupperware containers lined with paper towels. They can also be prepped and lightly sautéed and then frozen for use at another time. Drying is not recommended due to the resultant leathery texture. For more information about preparation, storage and cooking, see this page on the Bay Area Mycological Society website.
California golden chanterelles have one notable toxic lookalike, the aforementioned jack o’ lantern mushroom. This seriously GI-toxic species grows on dead wood (which may be buried in the ground), has deep, true gills with a greenish cast, and orange rather than white inner flesh. For a long time it was also believed to be hallucinogenic, but it turns out it was just delirium produced by dehydration from fluid loss! Its best claim to fame is that it is bioluminescent, and glows strongly in the dark.
Omphalotus olivascens, the western jack o’ lantern mushroom, is a chanterelle lookalike that’s not to be noshed. Don’t be fooled! Look under the cap to find their true gills, rather than the forked ridges characteristic of chanterelles (as shown in this closeup). Also, they glow in the dark. (Clockwise from top left: Nathan Wilson via mushroomobserver.org, CC-BY-SA, Harte Singer via mushroomobserver.org, CC-BY-NC-SA, Shane Reyes-Marsh via mushroomobserver.org, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0, Alan Rockefeller via mushroomobserver.org, CC-BY-SA)
The so-called false chanterelle, Hygrophoropsis aurantiaca, is another chanterelle look-alike, but one more likely to produce disappointment than illness. New hunters, desperate to find an edible wild mushroom, have mistaken these common orange mushrooms for chanterelles in the field. Their somewhat brownish caps, soft, fragile flesh, and true gills that fork at the cap’s edge separate them from their Cantharellus counterparts.
Threats to the continued health and abundance of these popular edible fungi are several-fold, and primarily concern the health of their host trees: coast live oak, black oak and tan oak. The ongoing spread of Sudden Oak Death or SOD, the razing of oak woodlands to create vineyards and other human encroachments, drought and climate change all impact the continued fruiting of California golden chanterelles. So does competition for space on the host oak tree roots by the invasive, introduced, deadly mycorrhizal fungus Amanita phalloides, the death cap.
Phytophthora ramorum, a species related to the Phytophthora that caused the Irish Potato Famine, is the agent responsible for SOD. An introduced pathogen, it has killed many live oak and tan oak trees in the Bay Area, and continues to do so. There is no cure for a SOD infection, though some oak species like the Shreve oak (Quercus parvula) may be naturally resistant. Dead oaks produce no chanterelles. The destruction of oak woodlands for vineyards and other human projects is an ongoing concern. Remove the oak, remove their chanterelle partners. Drought and climate change are affecting all of our forests, and the fungal species that depend upon them.
The case of unfair competition between Amanita phalloides and California golden chanterelles is still an open question. Death caps in California produce unusually robust mycorrhizal connections with their live oak host trees, far larger and more abundant than seen in their native lands. They also often infect oak trees that are already producing chanterelles. Several mushroom hunters, including myself, have noticed reduced production of chanterelles in trees that now host an abundance of death caps. Coincidence, or cause? The results are not yet in.
For now, the current mushroom season has produced copious amounts of these excellent and popular edible mushrooms. Look for them under coast live oak around the Bay Area and beyond, wherever live oak and fall/winter (or even the odd summer) rains coincide. But remember, not every season is like this one. It takes a lot of energy, from both tree and fungus, to produce a massive fungal fruiting, so don’t expect another one of its ilk for a while.
If a known “chanterelle oak” doesn’t produce chanterelles again next year, be patient—when conditions are right they will appear, as if by magic, and our California hills will once again run with gold: the eating kind.
This piece was updated in January 2024 for Bay Nature, from a version first published on the Bay Area Mycological Society’s website.