By Susan Vance
Photography by Joel Strayer
THE FANTASTIC FUNGI ARE GREAT FUN TO HUNT DOWN—AND EVEN MORE WONDERFUL TO EAT.
Those are our marching orders as we make our way up a scrubby hillside in the Caribou Peak area above Nederland.
Like treasure hunters without treasure maps, we have no idea what we will find—if anything. We’re seeking mushrooms, and one of the first rules you learn when scouring the woods for the little fungi is that you can either strike gold or return empty handed.
Our band of 20 intrepid mushroom hunters—some seasoned pros, some complete novices—has gathered at this spot, elevation 10,000 feet, for a fungi foray sponsored by the Colorado Mycological Society, a group of about 300 mycophiles formed in 1964 by a Denver physician named Dr. Sam Mitchel who happened to love mushrooms (the society’s newsletter is cheekily dubbed “Spores Afield”).
Our leader is Jon Sommer, a trained botanist and plant pathologist whose specialty is fungi mycology and who handles membership for the CMS. He has advised us beforehand to wear strong, comfortable hiking shoes and to bring a handled basket or other hardsided container (soft backpacks can crush dainty finds), a field knife and pieces of waxed paper or paper bags to hold our bounty—mushrooms sweat, so plastic bags are frowned upon.
It quickly becomes evident as we take off into the woods that we will need other tools as well: sharp eyes, an optimistic spirit and patience. A whole lot of patience. Though Colorado mushrooms can be quite showy (the amanita muscaria, a Rocky Mountain mushroom rock star, is a vibrant reddish-orange), as large as dinner plates (the cap of the boletus edulis, or porcini, can occasionally grow up to a foot across) and out in the open (on the sides of trees or logs, or even sitting like puffy loaves of bread amid grassy meadows), they are often reclusive and brown, camouflaged by their surroundings.
Because of that, Sommer advises us to keep our eyes firmly on the ground as we hike off trail (kids often make good mushroom hunters because they are so close to the ground). It’s an unfamiliar feeling—not only looking down instead of out at the views but also venturing off the beaten path. That’s one reason mushroom hunters are also advised to carry GPS devices; you don’t want to suddenly look up after a few hours and discover you don’t know where you are.
Sommer’s other advice: Look for mushrooms on the moist edges of melting snowbanks, among the roots of trees, and along seams of water—anywhere that’s damp. That’s why many mushroom hunters go out after spring and summer rains.
A RICH ENVIRONMENT
Despite Colorado’s dry air, the state is home to a surprisingly wide variety of seasonal (mostly spring, summer and fall) mushrooms. “You can find mushrooms anywhere, but Colorado has a lot of different, unique habitats in the mountains, some of it relatively undisturbed, and that’s where you will often find interesting mushrooms,” says Sommer. “Ninety-five percent of all land plants have symbiotic relationships with fungi, including mushrooms. That’s particularly true in undisturbed forests, where you find a great diversity of fungi. For example, Doug fir, which is a major tree species in Colorado, has about 1,200 different fungi that form relationships with it throughout the world.”
No matter how plentiful the mushrooms, there is a certain etiquette to the society’s mushroom forays. Rule No. 1: To be true citizen mycologists, never take more than your share. If there are several of the same variety in a specific area, take one and leave the rest for others. Rule No. 2: No beheading of mushrooms! To be able to properly identify a mushroom, you need to remove the entire thing—including a bit of the environment (like the soil, including things like pine needles) that it’s growing in.
ID-ing is crucial, particularly for home cooks. “Many, if not most, people get interested in collecting mushrooms because they are interested in identifying edible species,” says Sommer. “But the purpose of our field trips is not to go out and collect every edible mushroom in sight. It’s really to increase people’s knowledge, understanding and appreciation of fungi.”
That’s not to say that Sommer doesn’t appreciate edible mushrooms. Quite the opposite. “I might go out specifically to look for matsutake, which in my opinion is the best wild edible in the world—because of its flavor, texture and size. In Japan, they sell for about $150 a pound. At times the matsutake is abundant in Colorado. But you have to know where to look, which is certain pines at about 9,000 feet in elevation.” (Sommer even packs a little sauté pan in his trunk, for times when edibles turn up.)
Despite mushrooms’ tasty and sometimes magical traits, we Americans are a mycophobic society; mycophiles, those who love mushrooms, are more commonly found in Slavic cultures. “In my experience,” says Sommer, “if you go out into the woods and run across people collecting mushrooms, they’re likely to be Slavic.”
ASSESSING OUR BOUNTY
After three or four hours of hunting, our group gathers around the bumper of Sommer’s car to assess our bounty. Though he can identify thousands of species by sight, Sommer wears a magnifying glass, like a jeweler’s loupe, strung around his neck and keeps a bin full of mushroom guides in his trunk, including the inestimable Mushrooms of the Rocky Mountain Region, a product of the legendary mycologist Vera Stucky Evenson and the Denver Botanic Gardens.
Though Sommer says that an average CMS foray in July, August or September might turn up 100 to 120 species of mushrooms, the pickings have been slim and the varieties few for our little expedition.
But, as with all treasure hunts, half the fun has been the element of surprise. And, as Sommer points out, even those of us who didn’t find mushrooms got a beautiful hike out of the experience.
The fungi kingdom takes home the win for world’s largest living organism: The Armillaria ostoyae mushroom—or Humongous Fungus, as it’s nicknamed—occupies roughly 2,385 acres in eastern Oregon’s Malheur National Forest.
BUT CAN I EAT IT?
While the Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center receives only 120 to 150 calls a year about mushrooms—out of 37,500 total calls—Dr. Caitlin Bonney, resident and toxicology fellow there, advises caution.
The rules are fairly simple: Do not consume a mushroom unless you’ve gotten the go-ahead from a certified mycologist. “Pretty much every non-toxic mushroom has a toxic look-alike,” she says.
Michael Heim, president of the Colorado Mycological Society, recalls the humorous but wise words spoken by mycologist Gary Lincoff at the Telluride Mushroom Festival: “You can eat any mushroom at least once.”
And while not all poisonous mushrooms are deadly, the side effects could have you leaning over the loo for hours.
Still, you’re okay to touch, smell, feel and get as up close and personal as you want with mushrooms. Studying poisonous mushrooms in their natural habitat helps you gain familiarity with them.
But whatever you do, beware of the notorious Amanita virosa. It’s nicknamed “destroying angel” for a reason.
In terms of DNA, mushrooms are more closely related to humans than to plants. And like us, they consist mostly of water: 85 to 95 percent, in fact.