#117: Craterellus cornucopioides species group, the Horn of Plenty
If Black Friday needed to be symbolized by a mushroom, I would suggest the Craterellus cornucopioides species group. Their common and scientific names bring to mind Thanksgiving, they are black in color, they are prized edibles but are rather difficult to find, and they are very thin-fleshed, so you need to find a lot of them to make a good meal. I love these little mushrooms. Their flavor is mild but unique, making them a great compliment to various dishes. These mushrooms go by a variety of common names: “Black Trumpets,” “Black Chanterelles,” “Horn of Plenty,” and “la trompette de la mort” (literally “Trumpet of Death”) in French. The French name must be based on the mushroom’s dark color, since I am not aware of anyone having died after consuming the Horn of plenty. I usually just call them “Black Chanterelles,” but I will use the name “Horn of Plenty” in this post because that name is more suited to the season.
The Horn of Plenty is a very distinctive mushroom. It is smallish, growing to only 10cm (4in) high and 6cm (2.3in) wide. You will always find the mushroom fruiting on the ground around trees because it is a mycorrhizal (mutualistic with tree roots) fungus. It seems to have a preference for producing mushrooms in mossy areas. The mushroom is roughly shaped like a hollow cone with its point on the ground. This shape has been described as resembling that of a: cornucopia, trumpet/horn, vase, or funnel. The flesh is very thin and brittle, making this a rather insubstantial mushroom. As a result, you need a lot of these mushrooms to make a meal. The Horn of Plenty can be found growing singly, scattered, or in dense clusters. Which of these is the most common fruiting habit varies by region. If you do find one growing alone, look around to see if you can find any more! With a bit of luck and good eyes, you are often able to find enough for a meal.
The upper surface of the mushroom (which extends down into the center of the mushroom) is black to dark gray to dark brown with small, darker scales and fibers that are flat against the surface. Its margin is rolled under (especially when young), somewhat wrinkled and lined, and is often wavy. Thanks to the Horn of Plenty’s dark colors, it is often overlooked by mushroom hunters, who are mostly interested in the eye-catching Golden Chanterelles. Even experienced mushroom hunters have a hard time spotting these mushrooms. There is one thing you can do to increase your chances of finding the Horn of Plenty (or any mushroom, for that matter): walk slower.
On the outside of the mushroom, the spore-producing surface extends from the margin all the way down to the base. The fertile surface is usually lighter than the cap and can be black to dark gray to light gray. One feature that distinguishes this group from other chanterelles is that the outer surface is smooth to slightly wrinkled. Although no chanterelles have true gills, most of them have larger folds than those found in the C. cornucopioides cluster. There are a couple other black-colored chanterelles, but these can be easily differentiated from the Horn of Plenty by the much deeper folds on their fertile surfaces. You will usually find white fibers attached to the base of the mushroom. These fibers are what connect the mushroom to the underground network of fungal cells that is the main body of the fungus.
C. cornucopioides is actually the name of the European Horn of Plenty. At the moment, mycologists recognize two different species in North America: C. fallax and another species that is still going by C. cornucopioides because it has yet to be given an official name. The easiest way to tell these species apart is by geography: C. cornucopioides is found in Europe, C. fallax is found in Eastern North America, and the novel species is found west of the Rocky Mountains.
The mushrooms also have some subtle morphological and ecological differences. C. fallax has a paler upper surface that can sometimes be light gray, its outer surface can have yellowish tones, and it has an orangish to yellowish spore print. This species is found from spring well into fall under oaks and sometimes other hardwoods and produces mushrooms scattered across a wide area. MushroomExpert.com lists another species of Horn of Plenty – C. dubius – which differs from C. fallax in that it is found under spruces and has smaller spores that are produced in clusters of four (the other Horn of Plenty species produce spores in pairs).
The West Coast species has an outer surface that is strikingly lighter than its upper surface and produces a creamy to whitish spore print. It is found in winter through spring under conifers and hardwoods, where it usually produces dense clusters. There is also a yellow form of the West Coast species that is sometimes called C. konradii, although it is not clear whether or not the yellow version is actually a separate species.
The European C. cornucopioides is more tubular toward its base and usually displays colors on the darker end of the spectrum. You can find this mushroom from summer to fall (or even into winter as you get closer to the Mediterranean) under hardwoods and – less frequently – conifers, where it frequently forms tight clusters.
The Horn of Plenty has a mild taste but is prized for its odor, which can be mild to sweet, earthy, and apricot-like. In C. fallax, this smell is generally stronger than that that of the Golden Chanterelle (which also has an apricot-like scent)! Some people, however, experience the odor a little differently and describe it as that of old, sweaty socks. People who experience the more pleasant smell enjoy these mushrooms in spaghetti sauce, eggs, stir-fry, or sautéed by itself. The mushrooms dry very well and can be kept for use all winter. Unfortunately, you are unlikely to find the Horn of Plenty until next year unless you live on the West Coast or in a Mediterranean country.