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Danny’s DNA Discoveries – Russula
by Danny Miller
These are the mushrooms that are “underneath” the famous, popular edible Lobster mushroom. An orange mold called Hypomyces lactifluorum, covered in pimples, grows all over the mushroom and throughout the flesh (turning the gills into shallow ridges somewhat like Chanterelles), but unlike most molds, improves the flavour and texture of the food it is growing on. They are already crunchy to begin with, but the Lobster mushroom gets rid of the “grainy” texture that they sometimes have and enhances that crunchiness, and adds a complexity of flavour that they otherwise lack. Some of these Russulas are hot, like hot peppers, but I don’t know of anybody reporting a hot taste in a Lobster mushroom, so perhaps they only grow on the mild tasting ones, or, perhaps more likely, the hot taste that is known to be somewhat volatile is taken away by the mold. The Lobster mushroom is fairly easy to recognize because of its bright orange colour in the outline of the shape of a Russula and by the tiny pimples that cover the entire surface. (As an interesting side note, the spores of the mold only grow within the pimples, not everywhere. They sacrifice quantity for the quality of being able to eject them more forcibly like a volcanic eruption. This is a quality shared by the sexual stage of most of the “ascos” in the Sordariomycetes class, including the famous “zombie ant” fungus, Cordyceps, which is also covered in pimples).
Lobster mold growing on a Russula ‘brevipes’ group member, uninfected and infected – Photos © Steve Trudell
You can also use a Lobster mushroom to dye wool and other fabrics. This makes the lobster mushroom an incredible wild mushroom to learn for both culinary and crafting purposes.
The smallest mushroom in this clade, with the cap usually <9cm across. The spore print is cream coloured (somewhat yellowish), darker than the other members. It is almost always hot tasting, at least raw, and is not recommended as an edible. I imagine it has been eaten “by mistake” so we would probably know if it was universally poisonous, but we just don’t know for sure. This mushroom was first discovered and described from Oregon and is quite common. It appears to be a conifer species.
R. cascadensis © Ben Woo
Russula brevipes group
Larger, usually >9cm across, and sometimes 20cm or more (one of our largest Russulas). The spore print is mostly white, with at most a hint of yellow. The taste may be mild or hot. Some specimens have a really mesmerizing blue tinge to the gills, or even a thin blue line running around the top of the stem at the base of the gills. Russula brevipes was discovered and described from the east coast in 1890, because Peck recognized that the mushrooms he saw were ever so slightly different than the ones in Europe, so he thought we might have a different species here. Many people disagreed at the time, and this kind of debate is happening within almost every group of mushrooms to this day. DNA studies are helping to sort out the answers. Nobody had yet formally suggested that our west coast mushrooms might be different from all of the above, the current theory being that we have the same R. brevipes they have on the east coast (not the species found in Europe). But our studies are showing that our local mushrooms are unique. In fact, we have found up to a half a dozen different species may grow in the PNW that for now, cannot easily be told apart.
It was thought that the hot ones with the blue tinge represented one variety, “variety acrior”. But more than one of the species may exhibit these characters, so the truth is not that simple. It does appear to be true that one species has larger spores than the others, “variety megaspora”, so patient mycologists that look at the spores of every specimen will be able to identify this species. One fairly consistently “hot” species grows with oak (at least most of the others grow with conifers) so habitat may an indicator of this species.
Two conifer species seem to be the most common, but we are still working out how to tell them apart. We’ll have to look at how hot they are, whether or not there is any blue colouring and what the warts on the spores look like and look for patterns (and hope that there turn out to be meaningful differences). A very preliminary glance at a couple of examples of each species shows that one of them had either a blue line around the base of the gills or a blue tinge to the gills, and the other was not noted to have either, but it is way too early to make any conclusions.
Another species (US3) has been found on Vancouver Island, Bridle Trails State Park in WA with conifers, as well as other parts of North America and the world, but it's not clear yet if it's as common as the first two species.
Yet another species has been found in Mexico and northern BC near Alaska, but not yet in the PNW, but it makes you think that it could grow here too. But for now, none of our half dozen or so species have names, so the best we can do is to say that we have mushrooms in the Russula brevipes group. California and the east coast also appear to have additional species that have not yet been found here.
R. brevipes group sp. Woo 21, one of two common conifer species © Ben Woo
Some group members have a blue line around the base of the gills (photo © Paul Kroeger) or a bluish tint to the gills themselves (photo © Danny Miller, subtlely shown in the way the light is hitting the small Russula on the right). This is often accompanied by an acrid taste.
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