I don’t know if it’s been dry near you, but my house has been skipped by too many recent rainstorms. So when the gentle hiss of liquid on leaves permeated my kitchen window screens, I donned a bright yellow slicker and headed out into it. The joy of a slow, quiet walk in the damp woods reminded me of Mary Oliver’s poem, Lingering in Happiness. “After rain after many days without rain,” she writes, “it stays cool, private and cleansed, under the trees…”
Colors were muted in the gray dusk, but scents were made vibrant by the splash of drops sending dust molecules skyward, where the damp air stuck them to the insides of my nose. I breathed deeply, again and again, on my way down the driveway. Sweet, green raspberry leaves. The tang of the bog. Wet asphalt. Wet gravel. And then, the earthy bouquet of the woods.
“The dampness there, married now to gravity, falls branch to branch, leaf to leaf, down to the ground where it will disappear—but not of course, vanish, except to our eyes,” continues Mary Oliver. So focused was I on my nose, things did seem to almost vanish to my eyes. Until, that is, a flash of bright orange switched me between senses.
The oddly shaped blob of color right next to the trail didn’t look like much. But I knew instantly that it was treasure. In fact, it was a lobster, right here in the center of the continent. Not a crustacean, mind you, but a mushroom.
Lobster mushrooms, like many good things, are actually the result of a relationship between two living things. The orange-colored fungus, Hypomyces lactifluorum, parasitizes the mushroom of another fungus, and in doing so creates a tasty treat. Neither of the common host mushrooms is edible on its own. While not poisonous, Lactarius piperatus is reported to have an intensely peppery flavor. Russula brevipes, the other common host, is also harmless, but has a crumbly, Styrofoam texture that would be unpleasant to eat. Hypomyces not only renders a pleasantly firm, dense texture, it also neutralizes the peppery flavor and imparts an interesting seafood flavor.
Lobster mushrooms are a delight for beginning mycophiles, since they and their hosts are easy to identify. They are on the short list of mushrooms that I’ll eat without expert help. The outer surface is bright orange and looks slightly pimply – those dots are the reproductive structures for the parasite. Breaking open the gnarled mass of what used to be a mushroom cap, I found an appealing white center.
Continuing down the trail, I started to notice plain white mushrooms all over the woods. “Puhpowee was here,” I thought to myself. An Anishanabe word, it means “the force which causes mushrooms to push up from the earth overnight.” These must be the un-parasitized cousins of my lobster. But which host were they?
The first crumbling snap of the stem made me think of a Styrofoam Russula, but then I noticed milky sap oozing from a broken gill under the cap. This Lactarius was lactating. “So how peppery is the milk?” I wondered. After debating the risk of eating a raw wild mushroom (something that is not advised), curiosity won out and I touched the tip of my tongue to the milk. It was spicy, but not any worse than a peppercorn stuck in your teeth, or an extra dose of wasabi on your sushi. Eating a full bite would have been certainly been painful.
With tongue burning, nose humming, eyes flashing, cool raindrops tickling my bare knees, and the patter of rain filling my ears, I hurried back down the trail toward my kitchen. Although I’ve known about the edibility of lobster mushrooms for several years, I’ve had yet to taste one.
Soon my favorite cast iron skillet was sizzling with butter, and a pile of fresh garlic was mounded on the cutting board. Into the pan went the bowl of cut and cleaned lobsters. Into my nose rose a savory perfume. Into my mouth went the first hot morsel with its bright orange rind. Without garlic, it was bland, but pleasant. It was a nice experiment, but not dinner. In went the pile off the cutting board. The flavors of garlic and butter warmed my cool evening as the rain drummed harder on the leaves.
Lobsters in the Northwoods. After rain, after many days without rain, you never know what you might find in the woods.
Bright orange lobster fungi sometimes hold the shape of their host mushroom, but the orange rind on the outside is actually a parasitic fungi that renders inedible hosts tasty. Photo by Britt Bunyard.
In the background sits an un-parasitized Lactarius piperatus. In the foreground you can see the pimply orange rind of parasitic Hypomyces lactifluorum that renders the brittle white flesh of the Lactarius edible. Together, they become the lobster mushroom. Photo by Emily Stone.