The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, August 1, 2008


Lobster mushroom

My friends, the fungi, are very happy with all the rain we’ve had. They are producing mushrooms at such a rate you can hardly step out of the house without tripping over some.

(Photo by Kay Fairweather)

In the conservation land they are even coming up in the paths. I have seldom seen such plenty so I knew I had to choose a mushroom topic this week. Chanterelles are in season but I have found only a paltry few although I know one person in town who has them coming up in good numbers in her lawn. I chose the lobster mushroom because you are quite likely to see it in public land and it has two attractions. It tastes great, and if you put it in the dye pot instead of the cooking pot, it is less filling. Talking frogs probably knew this way before they were co-opted into learning brand names and making commercials.

Name. The lobster mushroom has a problematic common name. It is obviously not a lobster and it is not really a mushroom either. It is a bright orange parasitic fungus called Hypomyces lactifluorum that completely envelops the mushroom of its host species of Lactarius or Russula.

The term hypo is familiar as a term for something that is below, beneath, or less than normal. The root myc means fungus or mushroom, so Hypomyces translates into something less than a normal fungus. Lactifluorum is a reference to one of the host species, the Lactarius.

When and where seen. I found a lot of lobster mushrooms (as well as other species of Hypomyces) in the Towle Woods this past weekend. I have found them other years at Great Brook Farm State Park and in the Estabrook Woods. They are probably present in all the conservation land in town. Their host species, Lactarius and Russula, are very common mushrooms. If you should overhear someone in the woods excitedly saying, “Oh look! Some lobsters!” you have not encountered a person who failed biology class but rather a happy mushroom hunter.

Distinguishing characteristics: The bold orange color of the lobster mushroom is the first thing that will catch your eye. It is the color of a cooked lobster. As the lobster grows over the host mushroom it distorts the shape of the original mushroom often making it into a rough vase-shape. It completely covers the cap, stem, and gills and feels gritty like sand-paper. Sometimes it will have some white areas and as it ages it becomes red. When I pick them for eating, I choose orange ones that feel very hard and firm. The flesh inside is dense and white. They range in size from about two inches wide to almost eight inches.

Edibility. The books describe the lobster mushroom as edible and even as “choice.” The host species is so compromised by the parasitic lobster that it cannot be identified as an edible species so we rely on the lobster to attack only edible mushrooms – or to make the host edible.

Preparing the lobster for cooking requires a bit of work. As the lobster takes over its host, it manages to fold in a good measure of dirt and debris. If cleaning becomes too time-consuming, I toss them dirt and all into the dye pot. But, two weeks ago a friend prepared some that adjusted my priorities so now I take the time required to clean them. He cooked the cleaned, chopped lobsters in butter and cream at a very low temperature for about half an hour and then served them tossed with linguini. We added salt and pepper. Nothing else. Delicious! Other poisonous species of Hypomyces are also common right now and growing in the Towle Woods near where I found the lobsters.

Dye. I have used lobster mushrooms to dye wool and silk. It does not require a mordant for fastness. The color you get varies with the pH of the dye bath. A neutral dye bath gives a salmon pink color. Raising the pH to eight or nine with ammonia brings out more orange but it doesn’t approach the intensity of the color of the mushroom.

References. Mushrooms of North America by Alan Bessette, Arleen Bessette, David Fischer; Mushrooms Demystified by David Arora; Mushrooms for Color, Miriam Rice. ∆

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