trick or treat, from spookysites.comTom Volk's Fungus of the Month for October 2005

Lactarius rubidus, candy caps

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Lactarius rubidus, candy caps

Trick or treat!!

If you're lucky enough to be able to go trick-or-treating this Halloween, you're probably hoping for some candy or popcorn balls or oatmeal-raisin cookies, or maybe some razor-blade free apples. I remember my best Halloween when I was about 10 years old in Ohio. The Zarlenga's from up the street were rumored to be giving out homemade candy apples. My sister and I high-tailed it there and each got a delicious bright red candy apple (you know, the kind that's really sticky with the sour apple underneath). We always knew who had the best and largest candy in our neighborhood, and some kids even changed costumes to go out and get the good ones again (I never did that...). However, I wonder what we kids would have done if we had found out someone was giving out mushrooms???! As a 10-year-old I probably would have avoided that house, but these days I would be thrilled, as long as they were giving out candy caps..

Candy caps, scientifically known as Lactarius rubidus, are among the most deliciously fragrant mushrooms you could ever hope to find. When fresh they don't look or smell like much, but when dried they have a pungent odor of butterscotch or maple sugar. To give you some idea of the strength of their odor, I put some dried candy caps in my plastic collecting box while I was in California in January of this year. They were removed from the box in late January. When I opened up that box for collecting last week, I could still smell the candy caps in my box from across the room ! Yum! To relive the smell I have just opened a mason jar of candy caps in my kitchen for just a minute, and I can still smell the odor a half hour later in my living room.

Lactarius rubidus on a road cutCandy caps are one of the few kinds of mushrooms that make an excellent desert. Perhaps the best dessert I have had in the past several years was made by Debbie Viess at a Sonoma County mushroom camp. It was a persimmon pudding (more like a cake) covered with cream that had been infused with several candy caps. Wow! Another delicious dessert was made by someone from the Mycological Society of San Francisco (sorry I don't know who) at the NAMA foray at Asilomar in 1998-- some incredible oatmeal-candy cap cookies. You can see these must be have been very delicious since I remember these desserts from that long ago.

Unfortunately for us midwesterners and people from other parts of the world, Lactarius rubidus is commonly found only on the west coast of North America. Its favorite habitat seems to be near the sides of the road, particularly where a cut has been made in the side of the road, as shown to the right. It also seems to like other disturbed areas. Given this odd habitat, it may be surprising that, like other members of the genus such as Lactarius indigo, it is a mycorrhizal fungus, having a mutualistic association with the roots of trees. Typically Lactarius rubidus is found in association with conifers. Like all Lactarius species, L. rubidus produces a milky latex when cut or injured. This latex is produced and stored in special cells called lacticifers, thick walled "milk-bearing" cells with refractive latex-like contents. These special cells are shown below and to the left. This latex seems to protect the mushrooms from being eaten, especially by insects. Think about if-- if you're an insect and you bite into a delicious looking mushrooms, your mouth would become filled with this sticky latex. You would be unable to eat any further, and the mushrooms would be saved.

lacticifers of LactariusThere are several Lactarius species that can be confused with candy caps. Our current FotM, candy caps or Lactarius rubidus (formerly known as Lactarius fragilis var. rubidus) has watery clear milk when fresh, as does the edible (but not butterscotchy) L. rufulus. According to there are several other reddish species on the west coast, but all of these have white milk. moreover some of these are acrid (bitter hot) in taste. These include Lactarius rufus, L. xanthogalactus, L. luculentus and L. subviscidus. There are several fragrant Lactarius species in other parts of the world, including L. fragilis var. fragilis and L. camphoratus, but these have not been thoroughly investigated for edibility.

I hope you enjoyed learning about Lactarius rubidus, the candy cap. It's a fun mushroom to find, and it makes a wonderful accompaniment to desserts and main dishes alike. I hope someday you can experience the flavor and smell of this mushroom-- but maybe not in your trick-or-treat bag...

If you have anything to add, or if you have corrections, comments, or recommendations for future FotM's (or maybe you'd like to be co-author of a FotM?), please write to me at

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