On a recent Saturday morning, I went for a walk through Buttermilk Falls State Park. There were not many mushrooms growing, but one species caught my attention right away. I noticed several bright, red protrusions sticking out of the pine needles that covered the ground and realized at once what I had found.
The mushrooms were too red and too thick to be either chanterelles, a delicacy in Europe, or false chanterelles, its poisonous look-a-like. Some were large, while others were just beginning to grow. I reached down and wiped the dirt away from one of them. As I had thought, they were Lobster mushrooms. Hypomyces lactifluorum are technically not mushrooms at all. They are parasites that take over other mushrooms. Observations made by several mycologists suggest that they only parasitize edible mushrooms, which is good for us so that we know we are not eating anything poisonous.
As I continued to walk through the woods, I postulated that the Lobster mushroom species that thrives in the Buttermilk Falls State Park requires at least two conditions to grow. First, the ground must be moist. There was a thunder storm this past Thursday and it rained a considerable amount. Second, they will grow only under pine trees and other evergreen trees. I looked through a large part of the forest and the only spots in which I found the Lobster mushrooms growing were under the pine trees and evergreen trees.
There may also be other secondary influences that affect the growth of the Lobster mushroom. In the middle of July, I visited Buttermilk Falls, five to six days after a rain storm. It was a sunny day with minimal wind. In the higher parts of the hills in the state park and underneath a group of pine trees and evergreens, I found the remnants of many old Lobster mushrooms. I was upset that I had not been there a few days earlier to collect what would have been an enormous bounty. However, on Saturday morning, the weather was very windy at the same spot in the higher parts of the hills. I did not find a single Lobster mushroom. But, in the lower parts of the hills, where there was less wind, I found six healthy Lobster mushrooms. I concluded that the strong winds must have dried out the soil which inhibited the mushrooms from growing.
After I returned to my dorm room, I did a quick internet search of the Lobster mushroom. I found that they often parasitize certain types of mushrooms known as Russulae and Lactarii. Sure enough, I recalled seeing several half eaten white stalks typical of mushrooms from the Russula family. There were also some smushed and unidentifiable, Russula-like mushrooms. This new bit of information only reinforced my classification of the Lobster mushroom as correct.
While they can be tough to clean, Lobster mushrooms are edible. They have a slight woody taste and are a little tough and chewy. I have seen them for sale in supermarkets in the Ithaca area. The fresher they are the better. If they look dried and cracked and have an over-powering mushroom smell, they are too old and probably will not taste as good. But, as the summer comes to a close, it will be harder to get them fresh. So either go hunt for the Lobster mushroom yourself (but only eat it if you are 100 percent certain you have identified it correctly; it’s always best to consult an expert) or buy some soon and enjoy!