Lobster mushroom - fungus or crustacean?

While Ithaca’s gorges mean relief from the summer heat is never far away, sometimes I miss the crashing waves and salty smell of the ocean.  I may be hundreds of miles inland, but my thoughts drifted off to sea today when I found two mushrooms that blur the line between fungus and crustacean.

My first fishy find was a school of shrimp Russulas, also known as the shellfish-scented Russula or crab brittlegill. The name is not ironic; the mushroom reeks of shellfish, especially in older specimens. In fact, the shellfish scent is an important ID feature, since the cap color on your sylvan shrimp may be purple, red, pink, orange, yellow, brown, or olive. Even if your Russula does smell shrimpy, be careful – Russulas are notoriously difficult to ID, and for this reason the shrimp Russula does not appear in the ForageCast graphic.

Like all Russulas, the mushroom has brittle flesh that shatters into pieces when kicked or tossed. As fun as throwing Russulas against trees and watching them explode may be, their texture does not earn them points in the kitchen. This is why most Russulas are, in mycologist David Aurora’s words, “Better kicked than picked.” However, the shrimp Russula has a rich enough flavor to trump its brittle texture, and even Aurora enjoys them – especially when marinated and cooked over an open hearth.  So, I resisted the urge to kick today, instead opting for the more peaceful option of “pick.”

Once I had enough shrimp, it was on to lobster. Like its namesake, the lobster mushroom is a bottom-dweller, often hiding beneath the duff on the forest floor. Luckily, it is not very good at hiding – its flame red, warty flesh is a dead giveaway that a lobster is lurking among the leaves. This parasitic fungus is one of nature’s great alchemists, turning white, insipid Russula and white, acrid Lactarius fungi into a delicious and colorful mushroom that smells and tastes like the sea.

Go into the woods today and keep your eyes (and nostrils open) for lobster and shrimp Russula mushrooms – you too may be swept away!

Northeastern ForageCast for the week of July 11, 2011