Mushrooms sure are fascinating, and lobster mushrooms are towards the top of that list for me! They're one of the more interesting species because they aren't just the fruiting body of a fungi, instead they're a parasitic fungus that infects other species, turning them into the choice edible lobster mushrooms! After writing several articles about plants, I thought it was time to get some more mushroom info on the website! I put up a poll on my Patreon page and my supporters voted heavily in favor of lobster mushrooms, so here we are! Let's talk about how to find this fascinating and delicious species!
As mentioned above, lobster mushrooms aren't actually a fruiting body of a fungus, instead they're one of the many species of parasitic fungi in the genus Hypomyces. These parasites infect other species of fungi and usually induce drastic changes in their appearance, texture, and flavor for the edible varieties! In Colorado, the main unwilling host species for Hypomyces lactifluorum, the binomial for lobster mushrooms, is usually a Russula from the brevipes complex, though they can also infect some species of milkcaps in the genus Lactarius. The Russula they target are fairly plain looking, white, gilled mushrooms, and if you're finding these while you're out looking for lobsters then you're definitely in the right place! More on where to look a little later, first let's go over how to identify a lobster mushroom!
Lobsters are a great mushroom for beginners to learn because there is really nothing else that looks like them! They are bright orange in color, like a cooked lobster, on both the top and underside, though the latter is usually brighter. Occasionally, you may find a 'partial lobster'; one that isn't quite as orange as the others or maybe still shows some parts of the host species! This is because the Hypomyces hasn't completely finished the infecting process! You can see a lighter colored one in the top center of the above photo. As far as I understand, these are still edible, though if there's any question just skip it. The flesh inside lobsters is white and firm, though as the mushroom matures and gets past the good stage for eating it can become off-white to brown and soft. Lobster's spore color is white, but they have no gills or obvious spore bearing structures just a finely rough and bumpy surface on the stem and underside of the cap. The top of the cap is smoother and often has strange folds or creases that can sometimes make cleaning the mushrooms a bit of a chore. Lobsters can have a fairly standard mushroom shape, but they can also take all sorts of weird forms. I've found a lobster growing upside-down from the cap of another lobster, or in an almost perfect ball, and all sort of shapes in-between!
Lobster mushrooms can be a little tricky to locate in Colorado because of their preferred habitat; pure or majority ponderosa pine forests. From there they also need their host species, the right conditions to fruit, and finally you need to be able to spot them! It's definitely a recipe that doesn't come together with any regularity, but with enough persistence lobster mushrooms can definitely be found here! I should add that this ponderosa association isn't always the case for lobsters in other states because their fruiting location is determined by the mycorrhizal preferences of their host species! Here and in the the southwestern states, Russula brevipes likes to grow in association with ponderosa, but in the Midwest for instance lobsters are found in hardwood forests!
In Colorado we're lucky to have around 24.5 million acres of forested land, and of that around 2 million acres or 8% is ponderosa forest. Numbers cited from the Colorado State Forest Service, click the links for more info and maps! Ponderosa forests can be found throughout the 'Foothills' of the Front Range which is east of the continental divide, as well as in southwestern Colorado, and sporadically spread through much of the western slope. These forests typically range from about 6,000 to 9,000 feet in elevation, though occasionally they break outside of those elevations on either side. Once you find your nearest ponderosa stand it's time to check for lobsters!
Typically, lobster mushrooms fruit in the summer and fall with the first ones usually showing up in July, though I wouldn't be surprised to see them found in late June some years. These ponderosa forests are often pretty warm and dry habitats, so ideally you'll want to go searching soon after a nice rain! While hunting for lobsters you need to train yourself to notice what the mushroom-world likes to call 'mushrumps'. These are small rises in the soil, forest litter, and debris that signify a mushroom is fruiting underneath! This feature is great to learn because many species create mushrumps, including matsutake, Agaricus, young boletes, and others. Not all lobsters live under mushrumps though, once they get large enough they will break through to the surface and only remain partially covered by debris! Check out the photo below for an example of a mushrump, and the video to see me uncovering some primo lobsters! The videos are a new thing I'm trying for some articles, let me know what you think!
My general tactic for lobster mushroom hunting starts by checking a precipitation map to see if any of my usual ponderosa haunts have gotten some rain recently. Here's the best resource for checking precipitation: https://water.weather.gov/precip/
Use the "Timeframe" and "Overlay" sections to adjust the map settings and then find the area you're interested in checking out! I usually set the timeframe to 7 or 14 days, and turn down the opacity of the precipitation layer in the overlay section. If I see an area that has had some consistent rain over the last couple weeks, around an inch or more, I'll head to those spots first!
When in the forest, as with all mushrooms, it's often a good idea to look for water holding micro-habitats. This is usually small drainages or depressions in the landscape, low spots where water would settle, north facing slopes, or large patches of bearberry, Arctostaphylos uva-ursi, which is a low growing plant found in many of our conifer forests. If the lobsters are really fruiting well focusing on these micro-habitats may not be necessary, but it's always a good tactic to keep in mind!
All this planning and research should lead you to some success, though, like many mushrooms, it might take a couple failures first! There are years where all the conditions line up and everything seems to be prime for lobsters, and I find nothing. Other years, I'm not super optimistic but end up finding lots! Eventually, you'll have some success, and when you find a lobster or two be sure scour the area for more! I almost always find more than one in the same area after a bit of close examination!
So you've found some lobsters, what's next?! Out of all the wild mushrooms, lobsters are one of the few that I actually leave mostly dirty until I get them home. Because of how and where they grow they're almost always covered in dirt and debris, and often it's quite difficult to get to all of it. In the field I'll simply brush and blow away as much as possible without spending too much time on it, and I'll keep them separate from any other mushrooms that I'm picking. When I get home they get a full spa treatment! Rinsed, gently scrubbed, bad or buggy parts trimmed away, tough folds broken open to be cleaned, and then finally laid out on a wire rack and/or dish towel to dry. Lobsters are stout and dense, they can stand up to a pretty rigorous cleaning! Don't worry about the claim of never washing mushrooms, it's a myth. Washing your mushrooms is totally okay and often necessary! Be sure to let them dry off before storing them though!
For storage I usually keep the prime specimens in paper bags and put those in the veggie drawer of the fridge. Also known as the foraging drawer at our house! The older mushrooms and small pieces get sliced and placed in the dehydrator to be saved for later use. Lobster mushrooms dehydrate really well, and in that state are great for mushroom powder, added to soups, or rehydrated and used in sauces!
Speaking of cooking, lets talk a little about ways to use your ground dwelling 'shellfish'! Lobster mushrooms have a very unique texture; they're quite dense and almost crunchy. Their flavor is pretty mild and mushroomy with a hint of seafood. They're one of my favorites!
Their dense flesh lends well to being used in longer cooking applications, like mushroom soups or seafood chowders. They also go great in pasta dishes where they add a nice mushroomy-seafood flavor and some bite to the otherwise soft dish. I've used them for "lobster" mac and cheese and in a simple bechamel sauce, both were delicious! A trick I picked up from the great Alan Bergo of ForagerChef is to use lobster mushroom powder in a rub to coat fish or other meats before searing! Alan has a bunch of great lobster mushroom recipes, so check those out if you need some inspiration, I know I do!
One final note before we finish this article! This is mostly for the mushroom nerds, but you've made it this far so welcome to the club, nerd! At the start of the article I mentioned Hypomyces, the genus of parasitic fungi that lobsters are in. Well, there are some other weird and cool examples of Hypomyces infections that you're likely to come across in your mushroom hunting career and I wanted to mention a few!
For instance, H. chrysospermus, the species that infects boletes rendering them inedible and stark white in color. Or H. lateritius, which infects milkcaps and induces and lobster-like transformation! I've read that these infected milkcaps are edible, but I didn't try it the single time a found an infected specimen. There's also H. luteovirens which is very similar to lobsters but turns the host a weird green-yellow color! I've never been lucky enough to find one of those, but apparently they're also edible! Finally, just for kicks, check out the strangely infected specimen in the top right photo below. I found this in the same area where I was picking lobsters, so I assume that it was a H. lactifluorum infection, but I don't know for sure. It's a Russula from the xerampalina group (known as 'shrimp russula', lots of seafood names...), which was infected causing the flesh to become dense and firm, and the gills to knit together!
Ah, the fascinating world of mushrooms!