Foraging for mushrooms in the Rocky Mountains is a novelty for many, a mystery for some and for others, nothing short of sheer euphoria. For mushrooming enthusiasts, discovering a blazing yellow blanket of chanterelles or a stand of king boletus is a highlight of a trek in the woods that enriches time spent in nature with ingredients for a creamy mushroom risotto or a savory mushroom omelet.
The mushroom hikes led by Walking Mountains Science Center this summer have been booked for weeks. The growing interest in this fun and fascinating hobby can be an indication that more folks are discovering that being outdoors is fun, great exercise and reaps rewards; that the hunt (call it a scavenger hunt) is as exciting as the actual find; and you do not need to be an expert to bring home a basketful of nutritional and delectable edibles.
Identifying mushrooms can appear very confusing at first and can take years before you recognize the hundreds of varieties in our mountains. But being able to identify four or five edible mushrooms comfortably can be enough to get you into the fun. Most mushrooms are comprised of a cap, stalk and tissue under the cap in the form of gills, tubes, teeth or ridges. Some mushrooms, like puffballs, which are numerous now, or corals, which should be appearing soon, don’t have a cap at all and look like brains and sea corals.
Caps (or lack thereof) help identify a mushroom, as does their smell, taste (though you should not eat raw mushrooms except to nibble a piece for a taste test and then spit it out) and when and where they are found. Mushrooms live on organic matter as parasites (existing on trees, plants or insects) or saprophytes (living on decomposing dead organic matter such as old leaves, downed wood and dung) and most are mychrorrizal, growing in relation to certain trees and plants.
Tree roots and the mushroom’s mycelium (the mass of fine branching tubes, known as hyphae, that forms the main growing structure of the mushroom) exchange nutrients, so rely on each other and some mushrooms are picky in their choice of tree. This helps explain why you can find certain varieties of mushrooms near certain trees like ponderosa and lodgepole pine, aspen, cottonwood, blue and Engelmann spruce and Douglas and subalpine fir.
Finding An Annual Jackpot
Besides preferring certain trees, mushrooms have preferred habitats such as preference for soil, moisture, intensity of light, temperature and slope. Most years the season here in the mountains begins in mid- to late July and extends through Labor Day. Some years, mushrooms thrive through September and depend on snow pack, summer rain and temperature. The best elevation for mushrooms is between 7,500 and 10,000 feet, and north-facing slopes are best, then east, south and west facing slopes follow. Mushrooms usually grow in the same areas year to year, so finding that magical spot one year can mean a jackpot annually.
Places most forayers in the Vail Valley like to forage include both sides of Shrine Pass, Black Lakes region west of Shrine Pass, the Homestake area, off of Tigiwon Road, top of Vail Pass and Charles and Nolan lakes regions. If you are interested in learning more about mushrooming, “The Mushrooms of Colorado,” by Vera Stucky Evenson, is a great resource. Or you could find a fungus-knowledgeable colleague who would be willing to take you along on a forage.
Exploring the wonders of our natural world this fall is reward in itself. Harvesting that edible mushroom just makes it that much more rewarding!
Natalia Hanks was the senior development officer for Walking Mountains Science Center. With Natalia’s recent passing, her friends at Walking Mountains Science Center wanted to honor her by reprinting one of our favorite articles that she wrote. She loved hunting mushrooms in the valley; even though the season is just coming to its end, there may still be a few porcinis or chanterelles out there to be found for those lucky few. Hanks contributed so much to Walking Mountains and to everyone she met and she will be missed greatly.