The Russulas
(Brittle Caps)
Explosion
Graceful Russula painting

watercolor pencil painting

General Information

This is a large group of colorful gilled mushrooms with enough characteristics in common to make the genus easy to recognize, although identifying individual species, especially among the many similar-looking red russulas, may be difficult.

Identification

Most Russulas have brightly-colored caps (The word Russula comes from the red, as in the word russet, and many Russulas are red).

Russulas quite similar to the related milky caps (Lactarius), which exude a milky fluid, which Russulas never do. Otherwise, they share the same characteristics:

Russulas all have white gills (which may discolor slightly with age) that attach to the stem (there's no space between the stem and the origin of the gills — Amanitas, on the other hand, have free gills). The spore print is white to cream-colored.

There's never a ring or skirt around the stem.

These mushrooms are so brittle that they crumble when handled roughly.

Some non-edible species are so common that I teach kids to administer the test for Russulas: throw the mushroom as hard as possible against a tree. If it explodes, it was a Russula.
Explosion

Habitat and Ecology

All grow on the ground near trees, and each species prefers or grows exclusively with a particular type of tree, which helps with identification if you know your trees. Russulas exchange nutrients with the trees, so they're most common in summertime, when deciduous trees are most active (those that partner with evergreens have longer seasons).

Toxicity

This large group contains delicious edible species, tasteless ones and poisonous varieties. The poisonous ones are acrid, and will make you throw up. If you taste a tiny piece and spit it out, and it's sweet-tasting, you have a choice species. If it's tasteless, it's not worth bothering with. If you feel like you've bitten into a hot pepper, it's a poisonous species. Only try this test if you're an experienced mushroom hunter, and you're absolutely sure you're tasting a Russula.

Edibility and Preparation

I find the edible species sweet and mild, with a delicate texture. Almost any cooking method works with them. Just avoid overpowering them with strongly-flavored ingredients or spices.

Unfortunately, Russulas are highly perishable. They usually appear the day after a heavy summer rainstorm, the best time to look for them. Two days after the rain is usually too late. Specialized flies lay their eggs on them, and the day after the mushrooms appear, they're already riddled with maggots and inedible.

Almond-scented Russula
Almonds
Almond-scented Russula
Edible Russula
Diner
Peppery Milky Cap
Firm Russula
Firm
Firm Russula
Graceful Russula
Ballerina
Graceful Russula
Lawn Flamingo
Tacky Green Russula