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Northland Nature: Lobster mushrooms appear in the woods

What we call lobster mushroom ("lobster" is a reference to the orange, or even red, appearance) is actually a mushroom and a mold.

The rains of May and June that got our warm season off to a start brought a wet one as well. Both months saw far more than usual precipitation, and were also above normal in temperature. July has continued with the heat, if not so much with the moisture. But still we are seeing the effects of a warm, wet early summer. Roadside plants thrive under these conditions and I continue to see a huge variety of summer wildflowers each time I pass by. It seems as though there are new ones in bloom each day. In the woods, the ample moisture and temperature makes for a thick growth of the leafy trees and also the ferns in the shade below. The woods that was so full of wildflowers in spring is too dark for any to grow now (an exception is the Indian pipe, an all-white plant needing no sunlight, which blooms here now); but as I've noticed on my walks, the ferns are not the only ones to thrive at this time on the forest floor. Here too, the fungi are growing quite well.

Like many things in the Northland, the mushroom season got off to an early start and I found the large oval-shaped oyster fungi growing from trees and stumps already in late May. During the following weeks of June and July, the list grew as I found jelly and cup fungi near the bright red and yellow waxy-cap mushrooms. Orange sulphur growths formed layers on the stumps; light brown corals reach up from forest logs, while a variety of small gray mushrooms abound here too. One day,

I found a bright yellow growth of slime mold and red eyelash fungi on a downed tree. But the woods is not the only site of mushroom growth now. In the lawns and trails, I located red-capped russula, both the yellow and white amanitas, and a couple of porous boletes. But it was a colorful find recently that made me take note. Walking through a mixed forest on a hot day, I was observing what was going on here in the woods when I saw something orange sticking up from the forest litter. Upon closer examination, I could see that it was a mushroom, but not just any one. I had discovered the first lobster mushroom of the season.

Orange is not unknown among the various fungi, and I have seen it with other mushrooms, cup fungi and jellies; but this one is special. Appearing to be a single growth of a fungus, this was actually two growths. What we call lobster mushroom ("lobster" is a reference to the orange, or even red, appearance) is actually a mushroom and a mold. The rather bulky solid-light-colored mushroom, usually a russula, pushes its way up through the soil on the forest floor. But in this case, it quickly has an orange-colored mold grow all over it. This is a situation of a type of fungus (a mold) growing on another fungus (a mushroom). The mushroom provides for the shape that we can see, while the mold gives the bright color. The scientific name for this arrangement is Hypomyces and refers to the fungal threads (mycelia) that grow into (hypo) the mushroom. The mold will penetrate through the outer surface of the mushroom, but breaking it open reveals that much of the flesh of the mushroom is white.

Finding this mold-covered mushroom is interesting enough as is, but it continues to get weird. The russula mushroom that serves as the host is not considered edible even by the most adventurous fungal foragers. But the mold appears to have a neutralizing effect on it and it becomes edible! Indeed, among those who fancy fungal foods, this lobster mushroom is considered a choice meal. (Due to possible danger and illness, wild fungi should never be consumed without the guidance of an expert.)

As we now move into late summer, we will be entering the time of most mushroom diversity. No doubt, we will see many more, including lobsters, popping up in the Northland woods, parks and yards in coming weeks. Whether we gather them or not, they are a great addition to the season.

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including "Butterflies of the North Woods," "Spiders of the North Woods" and "Webwood." Contact him c/o