Popping up alongside the wildflowers, near creek beds and scattered through meadows in Colorado’s forests are a rainbow variety of fungi, which an increasing number of foragers are taking advantage of.
Whether foragers are gathering some of Colorado’s prize edible species or just exploring to identify and learn, the Colorado Mycological Society has seen a hike in the number of people signing up for guided forays and club meetings.
“Most of the addition (of new club members) came in the last few years,” said former CMS president Ed Lubow. “The majority are there because they want to find something they can take home and eat.”
Current CMS membership is over 1,000 people, Lubow said, adding that a huge draw has been the ability to gather mushrooms in the wild that would be expensive to purchase from a grocery store, such as porcini, chanterelles, morels and matsutake.
For anyone just starting out, Lubow highly recommends going on a mycological society-led foray to learn the basics of hunting and identification, which is key for gathering to eat. He also recommends beginner foragers invest in a regional book on mushroom and fungi species.
“There are a number of local mycological societies," he said. "Go join one, because you’ll be around people with the same interest and with more experience, so you’ll learn relatively quickly. The No. 1 rule for eating is if in doubt, throw it out.”
Beyond the culinary foragers, Lubow said he’s also seen more interest from hikers and outdoor enthusiasts who like finding more ways to connect with nature and learning about their surrounding environment.
Fungi are an integral part of forest health, breaking down nutrients into the soil for plants and trees to use.
“What you discover fairly quickly is that if you go out there thinking you’re going to find morels, except for a rare lucky day, you’re not going to succeed, so you start realizing that you’re passing lots of mushrooms,” Lubow said. “For me, it turned into, even the ones I can’t eat are kind of interesting.”
Luckily for foragers, there’s no shortage of wild mushrooms in Colorado. From the southern San Juans to the Flat Tops in Steamboat Springs, there’s bound to be a bounty.
However, public lands have different requirements for foragers for mushrooms. National and state parks do not allow foraging, while national forests typically require a permit. Depending on the ranger district, some permits are free and others can cost around $20 per year.
Even urban parks in the Front Range are home to fungi finds, though it's less likely to find anything worth eating.
Some mushrooms in urban areas can be interesting because they're not local, but accidentally brought in, Lubow said.
Lubow cautioned that it’s always on the foragers to know what lands they are on and the rules of the land.
Prime mushroom season in Colorado runs from mid-July to late September, though certain species thrive outside of those months as well. Altitude also plays a role in determining what species foragers are likely to find.
“For Colorado, the key thing is moisture,” Lubow said of ideal mushroom conditions.
Gear for gathering mushrooms includes a knife for cutting stalks out of the ground or off trees, a brush for cleaning dirt off and a structured container, such as a basket, cardboard box or mesh bag. Plastic is not recommended because it can speed up spoilage.
Once on the trail, focus on the forest floor and tree trunks and it likely won’t be long before you notice mushrooms under brush, at the base of Aspens or on a fallen log. If foraging in a more urban or popular area, be sure to avoid gathering where there’s dog poop or pesticides or herbicides used.
Beware that some of the prettiest-looking mushrooms, like the red and white-spotted amanita muscaria, can be toxic if ingested.
There are a number of important parts of the mushroom to look at in order to identify it, according to Vera Stuckey Evenson's "Mushrooms of the Rocky Mountain Region." First, observe the environment, since some species are associated with certain trees and whether it’s growing in the ground or on bark will help define it.
On the actual mushroom itself, look at the cap for colors and textures; examine underneath the cap to see whether it has gills, teeth or pores; check the stem for coloring or patterns; and smell it for any distinctive odors. Also be sure to get the base of the mushroom from the ground, which can also be a helpful feature.
For species that look alike, sometimes a spore print, where the cap of the mushroom is removed and placed on paper to capture falling spores, or chemical tinctures, which react with certain species, are needed for a positive identification.
Unlike picking flowers, gathering mushrooms doesn’t hurt the fungi since mushrooms are the fruits of the larger mycelium, or root structure. Picking can also help spread spores for the mushrooms.
Even so, foragers are often encouraged to only gather what they plan to use and Colorado national forests require a specific permit for commercial collecting. Lubow also likes to set a high standard for picking mushrooms he plans to eat.
Conditions like browning or softening, as well as bug tunnels, are signs that a shroom is past its prime.
“If you wouldn’t buy a fruit in the same condition at your grocery store, don’t eat it,” Lubow said.
For those lucky enough to gather choice edibles, Lubow again recommends turning to local mycological societies for recipes and cooking tips.