Cornell University

$#%!&! Red Russulas

The thunder and lightening roared as I aimlessly went from tree to tree in search of mushrooms. Slowly I was getting soaked and I began to feel lost. I decided to find some students to tag along with on this mushroom field trip. What started out a typical Wednesday in plpa319 became anything but ordinary. Two other students and I went on a search for chicken of the woods, which is a tasty mushroom, sought after by many self-acclaimed fungus chefs. On the way I managed to find some other mushrooms, but as the rain picked up we decided it was best to go back to our starting point. We quickly realized we were lost and for the next hour our class was searching for us. The trip ended successfully, we reunited with our class and we were on our way back to campus to put our mushrooms away for later analysis. Later that evening, I found out that not only did I lose myself today, but my mushrooms suffered the same fate.

A reddish Russula with an identity crisisNo mushrooms to analyze! I was frantic, what would I do? Professor Hodge came to the rescue: she offered me a mushroom she’d picked at Ringwood. It was a Russula and I thought this would be a quick identification. How many Russulas could there be? Tons! I keyed out the mushroom by spore color, pileus color, stipe color, bruising characteristics, amyloid reaction, gill attachment, odor and taste. I used two keys3,5 and they led me to different conclusions. I settled on Russula rosea in Millers’ field guide. My mushroom had a purple cap–one key said R. rosea was red and another said it was purplish-red. My odorless mushroom was found near hardwoods, and it had a mildly bitter taste, attached gills, lack of a bruising phenotype, positive amyloid reaction, white/cream stipe color, and cream spores indicating that Russula rosea was its closest match. However, a “true” Russula rosea has a reddish-maroon pileus and a purple-tinted stipe5.

But what is a true R. rosea? A little sleuthing in Index Fungorum only reveals more entanglement. One Russula rosea was first described from Europe in 1796 by C.H. Persoon, one of the great fathers of modern mycology. The one our field guide5 suggests was described from France by L. Quélet in 1888. This latter may be a “real” species, but we can’t use the name rosea for it–it’s taken. Some consider R. aurora (Krombh.) Bres. to be an acceptable name for this species. But this is a European species, after all, and we’re increasingly finding that lots of North American things get mistakenly labeled with European names when they’re really quite different…How unsatisfying.

Before today I thought Russulaceae was the simplest family to identify. Lactarius bleeds milk when the gills are cut and species of Russula don’t. Many Russulas are named after what they do or how they look. Russula emetica makes you vomit and emetica means vomit-inducing in Latin. In addition, there is the short-stemmed Russula brevipes and the dense Russula compacta. Moreover, if your Russula or Lactarius is growing under oak or pine then you can be more confident that you have identified your mushroom in the correct family. Members of the Russulaceae are mycorrhizal, they form partnerships with trees and exchange nutritional resources. Most field guides will tell you that any red Russula is R. emetica, but that’s just not so–there are lots of red and reddish species! On Wednesday’s field trip and lab, I learned the importance of not underestimating the complexity of the family Russulaceae, of keeping your bearings in a forest, and of keeping track of your collected mushrooms.

  1. Buyck, B. et al. Russulales News is a great site, and it includes a compilation of identification resources.
  2. Kauffman, C. H. (1918). The gilled mushrooms (Agaricaceae) of Michigan and the Great Lakes region. Vol. I. 118-167.
  3. Kibby, G. & Fatto, R. (1990). Keys to the species of Russula in northeastern North America, Somerville, NJ: Kibby-Fatto Enterprises. 3rd edition. 70 pp. [Thankfully online at Russulales News]
  4. Kuo, M. (2005, January). The genus Russula. Retrieved from the MushroomExpert.Com Web site:
  5. Miller, O. & Miller, H. (2006). A Field Guide to Edible and inedible Fungi, Guilford, Connecticut: Falconguide. 84 pp.
  6. Volk, T.J. 2004. Russula emetica, the vomiting Russula. University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. Consulted October 2006.

Editor’s Note: For a depressingly informative account of the trials of Russula identification, see Michael Kuo’s discussion of the genus Russula. In North America, try the Kibby and Fatto’s key on Russulales News, and also the Visual Guide to Species at Steve Miller’s Russulales Website. Good luck.

Another Editor’s Note: Remember that old song, “little boxes, made of ticky tacky…?” It was written by Malvina Reynolds, but I remember Pete Seeger singing it (here’s a great selection of new covers). Can someone remind me of the version that begins “Little Russula, made of ticky tacky…?” I’ve heard it at forays, and I love it and want to sing it. Please help.



2 Responses to “ $#%!&! Red Russulas ”


Most people don't pay much attention to fungi, which include things like mushrooms, molds, yeasts, and mildews. Here at Cornell we think they're pretty fascinating. In fact, even the most disgusting foot diseases and moldy strawberries are dear to our hearts. We'd like to talk to you about fungi, so that like us, you too can tell gross stories at the dinner table. Afterwards, maybe you'll notice some things you would have overlooked before, and we think this could be good for the planet.

Kathie T. Hodge, Editor

Beneath Notice, our book of borescopic mycology.


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