Before attempting to pick coral mushrooms, study how to recognize poisonous and non-poisonous fungi. Numerous guidebooks are available. The coral mushroom is edible but has a strong laxative effect in some people. The mushrooms can be found most often on forest floors or stumps and frequently come in bright, highly recognizable colors. Many but not all resemble the ocean coral they are named after. Some other fungi can be mistaken for coral mushrooms.
Although coral mushrooms do not bear a close resemblance to poisonous varieties, no one should pick wild fungi without studying which are poisonous. Numerous guidebooks are available, such as The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms by Gary H. Lincoff or The Mushroom Hunters Field Guide by Alexander H. Smith and Nancy Smith Weber, as well as online resources that detail the poisonous varieties. Never eat a mushroom unless it can be positively identified as an edible species.
Coral mushrooms are generally found in the late summer and fall. They are most common in wooded areas, especially conifer forests, and are usually found on the ground. Some grow in open fields, however. Coral mushrooms are also sometimes called club fungi, antler mushrooms or doghair mushrooms.
The fungi also grow on top of fallen trees or stumps, and are usually of small size. Some larger clusters may be up to eight inches high.
Although coral mushrooms are generally small, they often come in bright colors, making them easier to spot and recognize. The fungi feel rubbery to the touch.
Many are shaped like the ocean coral they are named after, with groups of stems that grow upward and branch out. Some, however, are shaped like upright worms, forks or clubs. Some varieties can be shaped like a cauliflower or lettuce head.
Coral mushrooms are among the most colorful fungi. Most are tan, off-white or yellowish, but the amethyst variety strongly resembles a purple aquatic coral plant. Coral mushrooms are also found in bright pink and orange-red varieties.
Many mushroom hunters refuse to collect corals because of their small size. But most coral varieties are edible and some are very tasty, especially Sparassis crispa and Sparassis radicata. The tastiest parts tend to be the upper stems and branches.
Coral mushrooms can sometimes cause a laxative effect and stomach upset. The effect seems to be stronger in some people than in others. The best way to avoid problems is to reject mushrooms that are bitter, bruise brown when handled or have gelatinous bases. No serious poisonings are known to have been caused by coral mushrooms.
Some club mushrooms can be mistaken for coral mushrooms. Club mushrooms are generally edible as well, however.