Coral mushrooms look more like something you’d encounter while snorkeling or visiting the aquarium than on a walk through the forest. But despite looking right at home under the sea, these mushrooms are indeed land dwellers.
In this article, you’ll learn all about coral mushrooms, including their appearance, where they grow, potential health benefits, ideas for enjoying them, and more. Let’s dive in!
Most coral mushrooms (Artomyces pyxidatus) are edible mushrooms. They’re also known as crown-tipped coral mushrooms, crown coral, or crown-tipped coral fungus. However, depending on who you ask, some classify coral mushrooms and crown-tipped coral mushrooms as related but not the same. As their name suggests, these mushrooms look very similar to coral found in reefs or the ocean floor.
Coral mushrooms are unusual as they don’t have gills or caps. Instead, each branch is covered in reproductive structures called basidia that produce spores.
It’s important to note that there are several similar species of coral fungi, sometimes with unique and distinct characteristics. Ramaria species—like ramaria botrytis (r. botrytis) or ramaria formosa (r. formosa)— are typically brightly colored with branching fruiting bodies. Conversely, the Clavaria species aren’t branched and have light-colored spores.
Psst: Remember, not all coral mushrooms are edible. Some of the more brightly colored varieties are considered toxic and are a no-go for human consumption. If you need help determining whether or not a coral fungi is edible, consult a field guide or a professional mycologist for proper mushroom identification (1).
Crown coral mushrooms, in particular, have a distinctive appearance. The tip of its branches has many small tips surrounding a bowl-like depression (much like a crown), which makes this mushroom species easy to identify.
Usually 4-13 cm (1.5-5 in) in height, these shrooms vary in color, ranging from whitish to a yellowish tint and even tan. Newer branches are lighter in color than the base (2).
Other species of coral fungi can be very brightly colored and may be bright red, purple, orange, or yellow (3).
While many coral mushrooms thrive on the forest floor, crown-tipped coral mushrooms prefer growing on dead wood (like logs) in deciduous forests during the spring and fall months.
Sometimes these mushrooms will grow in clusters. Other times, you’ll see a single large mushroom, usually on aspens, tulips trees, maples, and willow trees.
While widespread in North America, they’re rare on the West Coast. They grow abundantly east of the Rocky Mountains and into Mexico (2).
While it’s likely coral mushrooms were used to some degree in traditional medicine schools, more documentation is needed for us to definitively speak to their use in ancient medicine.
Crown-tipped coral mushrooms owe their name to Elias Magnus Fries. Fries was a Swedish botanist who developed a classification system for fungi based on the characteristics of their fruiting bodies. Unveiled in his book, Lichenographia Europaea Reformata, published in 1831, his approach is still used today.
Of the classification changes that have occurred, many are due to technological advances. As such, coral mushrooms have been reclassified. In 1947, these shrooms were moved from the genus Clavaria to Clavicorona and then again to Artomyces in 1972.
Psst: Some mushroom hunters classify coral mushrooms as Clavicorona pyxidata. If you see this in field guides or other books about gathering wild mushrooms, you can attribute it to the changes in classification. (2)
Coral mushrooms are less well-researched than other mushrooms. However, they likely contain similar nutrient profiles to other mushrooms, such as fiber, protein, trace nutrients, and minerals.
Early efforts by scientists discovered indications that coral mushrooms may have antimicrobial and antiviral effects. More research is needed to confirm.
Further research shows that coral mushrooms may reduce a protein linked with cognitive changes in Alzheimer’s.
While present information is limited, further studies may shed light on even more potential health benefits coral mushrooms may offer (2).
Before jumping into the world of harvesting your own wild mushrooms (especially if it’s your first time), it’s essential to know the difference between foraging and ethically wildcrafting a natural resource like coral mushrooms.
These terms seem to be interchangeable and synonymous. Still, they differ by definition and, even more importantly, by their approach to harvesting.
Foraging is a popular term that serves as a catch-all phrase for gathering wild food resources found in nature. While similar, wildcrafting is harvesting local resources for medicinal needs. And here’s the most crucial distinction: ethical wildcrafting involves a deeply mindful approach to harvesting.
Wildcrafting takes the whole local environment into account. Familiarizing yourself with the local mushroom species is essential, even more so if there are threatened or endangered varieties to be aware of. Learning about proper identification is critical, primarily if dangerous lookalikes exist in the area. Consider using a field guide for local mushrooms in your area. And if there’s any doubt about proper identification, we strongly encourage consulting with a professional.
Another aspect of ethical wildcrafting involves learning more about the anatomy of a mushroom. While it’s easy to think whatever we’re seeing above ground is the whole mushroom, the fruiting body is only part of the equation.
Beneath the surface lies the mycelium, which is made up of tiny, delicate filaments called hyphae. The mycelium facilitates an exceptionally sophisticated communication network between mushrooms and other plants and trees. Responsible for nutrient uptake, mycelial networks allow for information exchanges about changing environmental conditions and nearby predators. Once large enough, these networks are called mycorrhizal networks and are essential for healthy forests.
When harvesting wild mushrooms, learn the best way to gather your mushrooms. Some, like reishi mushrooms or chaga, may require a hatchet, while others benefit from being cut at the stem instead of pulled out of the ground.
Another aspect of ethical wildcrafting involves respecting the local environment by not overharvesting. We aren’t the only ones who enjoy a fungal feast every now and then. Other animals and insects depend on mushrooms as a food source. Overharvesting can deplete a mushroom species and hinder recovery.
Instead, gather only what you need and consider making a spore print from the shrooms you bring home. A spore print is what it sounds like; you can lay your mushroom cap on a piece of paper to capture its spores. And while they make beautiful art or help with identification, those spore prints can also be used to start growing your own mushrooms at home.
Like other mushrooms, coral mushrooms are a versatile kitchen ingredient, equally at home as a garnish or the main event. Described as having a peppery taste, coral mushrooms are more delicate than other mushrooms like cremini mushrooms. This wild edible can turn mushy after cooking, so unless you plan to pickle them, plan on enjoying your coral mushrooms in one sitting after preparation. Here are some ideas to get you started.
Adding coral mushrooms to a salad is a quick and simple way to enjoy this delightful mushroom. Try pan-frying them to crisp them up before adding them to your favorite salad or keeping it simple with some delicate greens and a light dressing. Be sure to add them right before dressing the salad or even afterward to preserve their crispy texture.
One of the best ways to enjoy coral mushrooms is with a simple saute for the perfect side dish. Butter and olive oil add flavor, while fresh herbs such as thyme add color and flavor for a side dish quick enough for a weeknight but elegant enough for company. Morel and chanterelle mushrooms would be ideal additions for a wild mushroom medley.
Looking for another quick recipe where your coral mushrooms can shine? Try this easy homemade miso soup. With minimal prep time (just 5 minutes!) and a cook time of 15 minutes, you can have a cozy bowl of soup in under a half hour. Because coral mushrooms are so delicate, adding them to your soup right before serving will help preserve their delicate shape and make a beautiful presentation.
Psst: Sometimes coral mushrooms can cause digestive upset, so eating them in smaller quantities is best.
Coral mushrooms are unique and well worth the effort of wildcrafting. And with their striking appearance, these delightful mushrooms stand out in the forest as much as they do on your dinner plate.
Still craving mushrooms? For more mushroom happenings, including news and breakthroughs on medicinal and psychedelic mushrooms, be sure to keep up with us on shroomer.