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The Lobster Mushroom: A Fungus That Grows on a Fungus!

The science behind this fungus is seriously spooky--and this mysterious mushroom even makes its appearance in late September/early October just in time for the Halloween season!

Now that we are living in Wonderland (AKA Mendocino County) we have on a few occasions now found ourselves hiking amidst a plethora of "Lobster Mushrooms" nearly hidden in plain sight! Until this year, lobsters had always eluded me--so it has been exciting to spot this fascinating fungus out in the field on several occasions now!

What is so interesting about this orange mushroom?

Well, it certainly didn't start off orange!...

The lobster mushroom (Hypomyces lactifluorum) is actually an ascomycete fungus that has PARASITIZED its host mushroom, (most commonly and in this case) the large, white short-stalked russula (Russula brevipes)! Hypomyces lactifluorum envelopes the host specimen entirely in a soft orange crust. Yep--that means that this mushroom ultimately represents a fungus growing on a fungus!

The below photos show the "evolution" of this mushroom in succession (note these photos do not feature the exact same specimens; these are different mushrooms, and the photos were taken in different locations along the Mendocino Coast):

From left to right:

Photo 1:

"Short-Stalked Russula" (Russula brevipes)

Photo 2:

"Short-Stalked Russula" (Russula brevipes) partially parasitized by the "Lobster Mushroom" (Hypomyces lactifluorum)

Photo 3:

Lobster Mushroom" (Hypomyces lactifluorum)

Such a unique fungus... and especially if you know what you've found! For reference, lobster mushrooms grow to be about 4-20cm across with very firm, distorted/pitted orange caps that resemble that of the host mushroom, Russula brevipes. Generally they are bright orange, but they can be pale with orange blotches when young, and red-to-purple in coloration when they have begun to decay. The spore deposit is white and they can be found growing solitarily, scattered or in troops in spruce duff from late summer into early winter (north of Sonoma County). The lobster mushroom is named for its red-orange color (like the crustacean!) and also for its seafood-like odor.

The young and firm specimens are considered edible and sought after by many foragers. (Does this mean you have the opportunity to eat a zombie while it's in the act of consuming its prey?) My husband loves to cook, and being that these mushrooms are virtually unmistakable with no toxic lookalikes, we decided to bring one of our finds home for some culinary experimentation. He sautéed them with butter, garlic, and onions; however, the results were lackluster and he is eagerly seeking any recommendations for favorite recipes incorporating lobster mushrooms.

Have a recipe you'd suggest? Please do leave it in the comments (and thank you in advance)!


Mushrooms of the Redwood Coast by Noah Siegel and Christian Schwartz (2016):

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