A Guide To Foraging Hypomyces lactifluorum in British Columbia
Lobster mushrooms (Hypomyces lactifluorum) are the unsung heroes of British Columbia's mushroom hunting season. They're a safe and easy choice for beginner mushroom hunters due to their distinctive texture, large size, and bright colour.
Keep reading to learn why the unique and beautiful lobster mushroom should be on the list of every mushroom forager.
All About Lobster Mushrooms in BC:
What Is A Lobster Mushroom?
Lobster mushrooms are the result of a parasitic fungus Hypomyces lactifluorum infecting another mushroom, usually Russula brevipes.
The lobster mushroom infection covers the host in a hard red-orange shell, and completely alters its consistency, flavour, shape, and even DNA.
By all accounts, Hypomyces lactiflourum only infects edible mushrooms, though caution is advised due to possible adverse reactions, like allergies.
Lobster Mushroom Identification
Lobster mushrooms are relatively easy to identify because of their unique characteristics. The bright orange colour, size, and shape of lobster mushrooms are distinctive, and the texture is virtually unique.
To identify a lobster mushroom, look for the following:
Lobster mushrooms do not have gills.
Lobster mushrooms have a hard, rough exterior that is bright orange or red.
Lobster mushrooms are often broadly vase shaped, with dirty and cracked tops.
Mature lobster mushroom "caps" become irregularly twisted or folded.
The inside of a lobster mushroom is white to orange-white, dense and hard.
Prime lobster mushrooms will be either bright orange or red. However, lobster mushrooms can have a white surface if they are partially infected, and old specimens can be wine-purple or pink. White lobster mushrooms are still edible, but older specimens should always be avoided.
As mentioned, lobster mushrooms are relatively easy to identify and easy to prepare. This makes them a great mushroom for beginner foragers. Read more about some other great starter mushrooms here.
Where To Find Lobster Mushrooms
A lobster mushroom found under ferns, Douglas fir, and maple trees.
Where do lobster mushrooms grow?
Lobster Mushroom Habitat:
In British Columbia, lobster mushrooms can grow in diverse habitats, but are usually found under conifer trees.
Lobster mushrooms are one of the few edible mushrooms that can grow in large numbers under cedar trees.
How To Find Lobster Mushrooms:
Keep a look out for Russulla brevipes, the lobster mushroom's preferred host.
Look where the forest floor is loose enough for lobster mushrooms to push up from below.
When searching, keep an eye out for flashes of orange in the undergrowth and spots of fine white powder.
If you find one lobster mushroom, scan around for more. Lobster mushrooms often grow in tight clusters of 2 or 3, with others growing up to 5 metres away.
Lobster mushrooms will often appear in the same area year after year, so make a note when you find some!
Lobster Mushroom Season
An important factor for finding lobster mushrooms are altitude, weather, and seasonal conditions.
Lobster mushrooms can be found from July to October, depending on local and weekly weather conditions.
Lobster mushrooms are unlikely to grow at either very high or low altitudes.
As with most mushrooms, wait for heavy rains followed by warm weather for a good time to go hunting.
Pictures of Lobster Mushrooms
A partially excavated lobster growing under moss in November. Just past prime.
Although brightly coloured, lobster mushrooms can be hard to spot under sticks and leaves.
Another lobster mushroom well hidden under a thick carpet of moss.
Russula brevipes, or the short-stemmed russula, are the most common hosts for lobster mushrooms.
A Partially Infected Lobster
Partial infections are relatively common, resulting in a blotchy white, yellow, or light-orange surface.
How To Harvest Lobster Mushrooms
Lobster mushrooms can grow from deep under the ground. To harvest a lobster mushroom, grab it low down at the base or gently by the cap and wiggle it until it breaks free. Once picked, cut the base off to keep your collection clean. Dust off any debris caught in the cracks or folds of the cap. Some will have to be cut away once you're at home.
Remember that lobster mushrooms will fruit in the same area year after year (although the specific time and quantity may vary). So, if you do find some lobster mushrooms, make a note of the location so that you can return at a later date for more.
How To Know If A Lobster Mushroom Is Poisonous
Lobster mushrooms aren't poisonous. But old or bug-eaten lobster mushrooms can make you ill, and some people have negative reactions to them.
Lobster mushrooms that feel spongy, soft, or lighter than normal should be discarded. Also, check for soft damp spots. Discard those ones as well.
Prime lobster mushrooms should be dense, hard, firm, and not have any bad smell about them.
Growing Lobster Mushrooms
Lobster mushrooms can grow in large quantities, and they are also delicious and easy to cook. Because of this, wild foragers will often collect lobster mushrooms to sell to grocery stores.
So, one might begin to think...
Can lobster mushrooms be grown or cultivated?
Many popular mushrooms are difficult to cultivate because they depend on long-standing and delicate symbiotic relationships with specific tree species. This is the same for Russula brevipes, the preferred host of the lobster mushroom infection (Hypomyces lactifluorum). Add on the complexity of reliably inducing an infection, and you can see why the cultivation of lobster mushrooms might be prohibitively difficult.
White Powder Or "Mold" On Lobster Mushrooms
Mature lobster mushrooms will often have a ring of fine white powder around them. This powder can also be encrusted on the lower portion of the mushroom.
Many beginner foragers worry that this is a sign of mold. However, this powder is actually the spores of the lobster mushroom and poses no danger. Simply wipe them away before preparation.
Note that if you pick lobster mushrooms and store them overnight, they will probably develop a dusting of spores by the morning.
Patches of white powder on the ground can even be a great indicator of a hidden lobster mushroom.
Lobster Mushroom Look-Alikes
There are no mushrooms that look like lobster mushrooms. The bright orange-to-red colouring and hard shell-like exterior are very distinctive and relatively unique among fungi. You might find bright red or orange mushrooms, but they won't have the hard shell. And you might find mushrooms with similar infections, making them hard on the outside, but they won't have the right colour. For example, there is a yellow-green variety of the lobster mushroom infection (see right).
Yellow-Green Lobster Mushrooms
The beautiful red lobster mushroom has a slightly less beautiful and much rarer cousin, Hypomyces luteovirens .
Hypomyces luteovirens also infects Russula and Lactarius species, but its edibility is unknown.
Above: Hypomyces luteovirens
White Lobster Mushrooms
Very rarely, mushroom hunters come across the elusive white lobster mushroom. These have the hard, shell-like exterior of normal lobster mushrooms, but, they are mostly or completely white.
White lobster mushrooms are probably some kind of mutation and are (reportedly) just as safe to eat as regular lobster mushrooms.
Processing and Preparing Lobster Mushrooms
Thick-cut lobster mushrooms ready for the pan (with a few chanterelles).
Frying in butter, with salt, pepper, and rosemary. Getting ready for the oven.
Pre-Preparation of Lobster Mushrooms:
Lobster mushrooms often have dirt and debris embedded in their tops. Get a knife and carve this surface away.
Wipe the rest of the mushroom with a damp cloth to get it clean. Expect the cloth to turn orange.
How to Cook Lobster Mushrooms:
Lobster mushrooms take longer to cook than other mushrooms, and will stay firm through the process.
To soften lobster mushrooms, consider cooking them twice. Example: frying then baking.
Simple preparation is best. Lobster mushrooms do well fried in butter until they start to brown.
Some people have allergic or other bad reactions to lobster mushrooms, so first-timers should practice caution.
How To Make Dye From Lobster Mushrooms
The bright exterior of lobster mushrooms can be used to make fabric dye. This is a particularly good use for the deep purple specimens that are too old to eat. You will need a dedicated dying pot that you can use outside, alum, and baking soda.
Follow these simplified steps to dye wool using lobster mushrooms:
Collect the colourful, exterior parts of the lobster mushroom.
Boil the lobster mushroom pieces in a pot.
Strain the broth and add wool (in this case) that has been boiled in alum (an aluminium sulfate mordant).
Boil the mixture for an hour and then cool.
The colour should be a muted, warm yellow.
For purple, immediately dip the wool in a bath of hot water and baking soda.
For pink, wait a week or so before dipping the wool in the baking soda and water mix.
Lobster Mushroom vs Chanterelle
How do lobster mushrooms compare with the more famous chanterelle? Lobster mushrooms are better than chanterelles in a number of ways. Lobster mushrooms are larger, easier to cook with, and can be found in the summer when choice edible mushrooms are rare.
Compared to chanterelles, lobster mushrooms have many advantages:
They are easier to spot and identify
Often appear in greater quantities
Do not turn to mush if cooked incorrectly
Arguably, the only advantage that chanterelles have over lobster mushrooms is a slightly better taste. What do you think? Should lobster mushrooms get more credit as a choice edible mushroom?
Frequently Asked Questions About Lobster Mushrooms
Is the lobster mushroom edible?
Lobster mushrooms are very edible, being one of the most prized edible mushrooms that you can find during the summer. Lobster mushrooms have a hard, almost brittle texture, and a flavour that is subtle but distinctive. They require a lot of cooking, but with a bit of butter, seasoning, and time, they're delicious.
Do lobster mushrooms taste like lobster?
The lobster mushroom infection changes the taste and texture of the host mushroom. Some report that this change gives lobster mushrooms a lobster-like taste. Whether you experience this or not, their hard red shells and white interiors are certainly reminiscent of lobsters.
However, the taste of lobster mushrooms is both mild and variable, so don't expect the experience to be like tucking into an actual lobster.
Are lobster mushrooms safe to eat?
Lobster mushrooms are one of the safer edible mushrooms. The only two species that we know are infected by the lobster mushroom fungus in North America are Russula brevipes and Lactifluus (Lactarius) piperatus. Not only are both of those mushrooms edible, but the lobster mushrooms infection actually changes them completely into, well, lobster mushrooms.
Where can I pick lobster mushrooms?
Pick lobster mushrooms from the floor of coniferous forests. They usually grow from under light or loose organic matter.
To pick lobster mushrooms legally, in Canada: stick to land you own, private land you have permission to forage or crown land.
How do you prepare lobster mushrooms?
To prepare lobster mushroom, first cut away the crusty surface on top. Then cut away any damp or soft parts. Slice the mushroom into strips and saute or bake for a long time in butter with light seasoning.
How do you know if lobster mushrooms are bad?
Bad lobster mushrooms smell bad. They can also be spongy, damp, or crumbly. Very old lobster mushrooms will turn purple and pink.
How do you store fresh lobster mushrooms?
Lobster mushrooms can be stored in a paper bag in the fridge. Try to consume them within a week.
Can you dehydrate lobster mushrooms?
Lobster mushrooms can be dehydrated. Make sure to slice them thin so they dry thoroughly and consistently. Store them in a freezer, but not for too long.
Could lobster mushrooms be poisonous?
Lobster mushrooms aren't poisonous. Hypomyces lactifluorum only infects edible mushrooms, and even if it didn't, it changes its host completely, right down to the DNA. Care should still be taken when consuming lobster mushrooms due to other possible negative reactions, like allergies.
Is there a lobster mushroom poisonous look alike?
There are no mushrooms that look like lobster mushrooms. As such, there are no poisonous lookalikes for lobster mushrooms. If you simply pay attention to the primary identifying characteristics, and discard anything you're uncertain about, you will be unlikely to pick anything else than a real lobster mushroom. However, as always, getting outside confirmation from multiple sources is always recommended.
Summary: Foraging Lobster Mushrooms
Lobster mushrooms are safe
Lobster mushrooms are a safe choice for foraging. They are relatively easy to identify and only infect edible fungi species. However, as with all mushrooms, cook them thoroughly before eating, avoid old or rotten specimens, and only eat a small amount the first time.
How to identify lobster mushrooms
Lobster mushrooms are easy to identify. They have the following identifying features:
A shell-like covering
A bright red-orange exterior
They appear in irregular vase-like shapes
Lobster mushroom season
Lobster mushrooms grow from mid-to-late summer on Vancouver Island. Heavy rainfall can result in a large fruiting of lobster mushrooms roughly a week later.
Lobster mushroom habitat
Lobster mushrooms grow mostly in conifer forests. They can be found under cedars and Douglas firs, growing from under loose forest floor material, and usually wherever Russual brevipes are found.