Eighteenth-century British statesman and politician Robert Walpole made a cynical and apt connection between folks and fungus that could be relevant today. He claimed, “The very idea of true patriotism is lost, and the term has been prostituted to the very worst of purposes. A patriot, sir! Why, patriots spring up like mushrooms!” 

Patriots (seemingly the good ones) and mushrooms (definitely good ones) were observed last week during the holiday. Even with the rain, both were out and about in profusion. 

American biologist John Tyler Bonner appreciated mushroom madness, suggesting “the sudden appearance of mushrooms after a summer rain is one of the more impressive spectacles of the plant world.” It was a show of chanterelles that caught my attention after a report came in of bright mushrooms growing between rocks along a gravel path.  

Orange mushroom — Susan Straight

The pop of bright red/orange color and size of the small buttons gave way to an identification of red chanterelles. Also called cinnabar mushrooms, fire chanterelles and cinnabar reds, this was a really good find (if identified correctly) since chanterelles are known for their edibility. Swedish mycologist Elias Fries went even further, declaring these little loves “one of the most important and best edible mushrooms.” They were a culinary craze in 19th century France and a pantry stable for aristocratic kitchens.  

This bodes well for the modern chef, too, who would be advised to dry sauté the delicacies (which are 90-plus percent water), then add butter and cream to bring out the sweetness of the mushrooms. While there are many recipes, eating them raw is the least agreeable option.  

First, though, one must correctly identify them. And herein is the rub. Mushrooms can be tricky, often having poisonous doppelgangers, and it only takes one mistake to end a mushroom-hunting career.  

For red chanterelles, look for the color and size as well as the growth pattern and location. These mushrooms grow singly and, though you may find many of them, they don’t grow attached to each other. Nor do they grow out of trees; they grow from a soil substrate and associate themselves with oak and beech trees, being part of a symbiotic relationship that benefits both species. The mushrooms assist the trees with absorption of water while the tree provides nutrients to the ‘shrooms.  

Next, look at the underside of the cap and observe the gills. Red chanterelles have false gills that appear as folds in the surface that are structurally different than true gills. Think of the underside of supermarket mushrooms. One can also not separate the gills from the cap on red chanterelles, and the gills extend down the top of the stem of the mushroom. Sniff them to inhale their fruity, apricot-like scent. There are look-alikes to avoid: jack-o-lantern mushrooms and false chanterelles are toxic, so be wary.    

If you do harvest, clean well with a brush but not water, and store in a paper bag since plastic will make for a mushy mess.  

Only you can decide if the risk is worth the reward, but remember that timeless adage that points out that there are old foragers and bold foragers but no old, bold foragers. 

Suzan Bellincampi is islands director for Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown and the Nantucket Wildlife Sanctuaries. She is also the author of Martha’s Vineyard: A Field Guide to Island Nature and The Nature of Martha’s Vineyard.