They look like something from the deep, or even outer space. Coral mushrooms, also called deer antlers or doghair, are a family (Clavariaceae) of multi-colored fungi that resemble the sort of undersea coral you might find while snorkeling in warm equatorial waters. There are many species across North America, and they can grow quite large.
I’ve been reluctant to post about coral mushrooms for a couple reasons. First, they’re difficult to identify to the species level. And second, as edibles, they have a mixed track record. Some sources suggest that there are no deadly poisonous corals; others say that some corals can cause gastrointestinal distress and that even the choice varieties can have a laxative effect. One species, Ramaria formosa, also known as the beautiful clavaria for its yellow and pink coloration, is thought to be mildly poisonous. But careful foragers can rely on a few rules of thumb when gathering coral: avoid species with a gelatinous base; that bruise brown when handling; that taste bitter.
In my region the popular edible varieties tend to be spring mushrooms, in particular the pink-tipped coral Ramaria botrytis. Another is the yellow coral, both Ramaria rasilispora and Ramaria magnipes. These are large, meaty mushrooms with a stout, fleshy base (especially R. magnipes, which is also called bigfoot). Both yellow and pink corals begin to emerge after morels and in advance of the spring porcini flush in the Pacific Northwest, and given good conditions they’ll continue to fruit throughout the summer and into fall in some locales. Fortunately, these are the dominant species where I pick spring porcini, and I’ll find the mushrooms cohabiting, but harvesters should learn the particulars of their own patches.
Look for corals that have just emerged from the duff and leaf litter. As they grow, the tips elongate and continue to trap all manner of forest debris in their clutches, making them a chore to clean. I look for tightly clustered corals that resemble cauliflower more than weird sea creatures.
I picked some corals the other day while scouting spring porcini. When I got them home I decided to try to keep their cool looking profiles intact by slicing up for tempura. The porcini went into the mix as well, along with other assorted veggies and shrimp. Use your favorite tempura recipe; I like this one.