2019 was an exceptionally good year for all kinds of fungi and in my experience, it was the best in terms of abundance. This was acknowledged by a local foray leader I know, and he’s only been doing it for over 40 years!
The month is November, at the height of the mushroom season, and along with swarming crops of Wood Blewits and Birch Milkcaps, this other distinctive species, I discovered, were also in great numbers. I had probably walked by dozens more without noticing as their dull, earthy appearance has a habit of blending into the surroundings.
In a particularly damp mixed woodland setting, Ugly Milkcaps (Lactarius turpis) suddenly begin to appear in my path. I notice more and more, scattered over a larger area with others in smaller groups of two or three. They are most commonly associated with birch trees but can grow alongside other species including pine and spruce. The common name is very fitting, these mushrooms are simply ugly and look like they are in need of a good clean.
Smaller and younger fruiting bodies have dirty olive-brown caps, often velvet-like to the touch with an inrolled, shaggy cap edge. The older they get, the dirtier and less conspicuous they become, even to the point of turning totally black. A typical mature specimen holds between this olive-brown / black brown state (lighter at the margin), and the medium to large cap is often slightly depressed in the centre (sometimes with a central umbo). After rain, water collects in this central dip, creating a sticky/slimy texture which will glisten in the light. This is actually helpful as it makes them a whole lot easier to spot from a distance.
The decurrent gills are very crowded and initially creamy white (surprisingly). But soon they become blotchy and stain to a dull dirty brown over time. Damaged or ‘handled’ gills cause the white, acrid tasting milk to appear on the gill surface (as seen in the images below).
Culinary-wise (and speaking personally) this is a ‘no-go’ mushroom. Apart from looking unappetizing, they have a bitter/acrid taste. But the main concern is that this species contains a nasty mix of chemicals that are ‘mutagenic’ (that’s the big science word of the day). As many mutagens are known to cause cancer, it’s safe to say I would avoid this one for the pot. But saying that, it is very popular in Russia (often preserved in salt) or used as a spice (after boiling) in some Eastern European/Siberian cultures. Boiling can remove most of the nasty stuff – but not all removal is guaranteed.
I’m not saying this will kill you or give you cancer, I just thought it best that I label this mushroom as: ‘Not recommended for consumption’. Priyatnogo appetita (Приятного аппетита).
QUICK ID TABLE: UGLY MILKCAP Lactarius turpis
CAP / FLESH
7-15cm across. Dirty olive-brown colour. Initially convex expanding with age, often with a shallow central depression (sometimes retaining a small bump/umbo). Sticky and slimy when wet. Younger caps often have a scurfy texture with woolly margin.
4-7cm tall / 1.5-2.5cm thick. Same colour as cap/sometimes lighter. Smooth and cylindrical and has no ring.
GILLS / MILK / SPORE PRINT
Creamy white; crowded, decurrent gills. Become dirty brown/black with age.
HABITAT / SEASON
Mainly with beech. But can also be found with spruce, pine and others in mixed (wet) woodland.
Inedible. Acrid taste. Possibly carcagenic. But popular in Eastern Europe, Siberia/Russia.
The Genus LACTARIUS (Milkcaps): Characteristics to look out for:
• Gills and flesh exude milk when broken or damaged.