Book Review

The Genus Lactarius (Fungi of Northern Europe—Vol. 2)

By Jacob Heilmann-Clausen, Annemieke Verbeken, & Jan Vesterholt
The Danish Mycological Society, 1998
287 pages; ISBN 87-983581-4-6

Lactarius Persoon (Fungi Europaei—Vol. 7)

By Maria Teresa Basso
Mykoflora, 1999
845 pages; ISBN 88-87740-00-3

Two new books on European lactariuses are available—one from southern Europe, the other from the north. As might be expected from their different origins, the two are very different in approach and presentation. The Genus Lactarius (TGL) is the second volume in the Fungi of Northern Europe series published by the Danish Mycological Society. The first volume, David Boertmann’s The Genus Hygrocybe, was glowingly reviewed in the September-October 1998 Mycophile. Like the earlier volume, TGL is a slim, soft-cover volume in subdued colors, written in English, with concise descriptions and excellent color photographs.

Lactarius Persoon (LP) is the seventh volume in the series Fungi Europaei published in Italy by Mykoflora. Earlier volumes have covered Agaricus, Boletus (in the broad sense), Tricholoma, Lepiota, Entoloma, and Hygrophorus. LP is a thick hard-cover volume with an eye-catching bright blue and orange cover, written in Italian (selected portions, including the keys, are translated into English), with lengthy descriptions, and good to excellent illustrations, both color photos and paintings.

Cover

TGL treats 97 species from northern Europe and provides dichotomous keys to them. Each species is covered in a 2-page (4 pages for some) spread which includes important synonyms, a one-sentence summary of key features, a lengthy-but-not-exhaustive description of macro- and micro-features emphasizing those needed to distinguish the species from other lactariuses, indication of habitat, mycorrhizal associates and time of fruiting, and general discussion. The general discussion comments vary in length. Where there has been general agreement on the taxonomic status of the species, the comments are brief; where disagreement has reigned, the comments are lengthier. Although I am no expert on Euro-Lactarius taxonomy and nomenclature, the comments nearly always struck me as quite reasonable. The text material is supported by one or more excellent color photographs and well-done drawings of spores, cap cuticle structure, and cystidia, the most critical microcharacters for classification and identification. The presentations focus just on what you need to identify a fungus-in-hand and do it quite admirably. Although there are a few typos here and there, the English is excellent and the overall appearance is clean and attractive.

The user-friendliness of the book is enhanced by a host of nice touches—clear definitions and illustrations of the authors’ concepts of morphological features, data on collections studied and illustrated, a list of the Methuen color-codes which correspond to the color terms used in the descriptions (for example, “apricot-orange” is Methuen color 5A8), and a chart summarizing the occurrence of each species by European country (based on cited literature sources).

Cover

LP treats 112 species from throughout Europe. Introductory material, most of it in English as well as Italian, explains the features used in the descriptions and classification, directions for studying Lactarius collections, and Basso’s scheme for subdividing the genus (which is fairly similar to the one used in the Danish book -- both drawing upon several earlier concepts, including that of Hesler and Smith). Each species is covered in several pages, in full technical-monographic detail including lengthy list of synonyms and original (usually Latin) diagnoses. There are color photographs for most species and drawings of key microscopic features. The photos are generally good to excellent and the drawings are good, but the drawings could have been reduced in size to save space without sacrificing any effectiveness. Of historic and taxonomic interest, an appendix includes illustrations of 26 species in paintings done under the supervision of Elias Fries. This is basically a technical monograph with color illustrations.

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Overall, I love the Fungi of Northern Europe series—they’re exactly the sort of books we need. Concise, well explained and illustrated treatments of taxonomic groups by competent, experienced fungus-lovers. Technically sound, attractive, and user-friendly, they are an effective hybrid of professional monograph and amateur field guide. The only substantive suggestion I would make is to add a hard cover to future volumes (which are advertised to include Agaricus, Hebeloma, Tricholoma, and Mycena), as these books are likely to receive heavy use.

I also find the volumes in the Fungi Europaei series to be very useful books, but they are less user-friendly for English-speakers. The inclusion of lengthy detailed information, in Italian, makes them harder to use than their Danish counterparts. Of course, there are times when complete detail is necessary to cinch an identification or clarify a taxonomic issue, but such occasions are probably rare for most NAMA members. Although it is fairly easy to decipher the basic descriptive information because of the similarity of the Italian and English terms (in both cases derived largely from Latin), it would be nice to see at least the “Observations” sections of the species descriptions presented in English. More editing by a native English-speaker also is suggested as much of the English translation reads rather awkwardly (although the meaning is usually clear).

Bottom-line -- should a North American mushroomer buy these books? As I usually  say—“It all depends ... ” Those of you who are serious about understanding our mycoflora definitely would benefit from these books despite the fact that the majority of the species they cover probably don’t occur in our part of the world (for instance, book reviewer and mycostatistician Harley Barnhart has determined that only 26 of the 97 species in TGL were included in Hesler and Smith’s North American monograph of the genus). Both books effectively convey the recent thinking about the morphotaxonomy of the genus (based, in the case of TGL, on consideration of tropical as well as European species) and provide valuable descriptions and illustrations with which we can compare our taxa. All too often, we superficially apply Euro-names to our fungi without first performing the critical comparisons necessary for showing that the same fungus is involved. For instance, much of what has been called Lactarius camphoratus in the North America is other species, including L. fragilis. Yet at the same time, there may be many currently unrecognized Euro-lactariuses fruiting among us. Many of the confusingly colored New Mexican “L. deliciosus” appear to me to be very similar to L. quieticolor or L. hemicyaneus as described in TGL, and this deserves further study (a hint to you NMMS members out there!).

If you are on a budget and can afford only one, the choice is clear. TGL is less expensive, better suited to amateurs or non-specialist professionals, and easier to use. If you are a serious agaricologist, you need both. Either way, both are excellent contributions to the mycological literature, provide good value for your dollar, and are fine testaments to what dedicated amateur mycologists can do!

— Review by Steve Trudell, Seattle, WA
— Originally published in The Mycophile 41:2, 2000