Q&A: Mushroom experts Kristen and Trent Blizzard explain why 2020’s local foraging season was a bust
Fires across Colorado, including our close-to-home Grizzly Creek Fire are symptoms of the drought our state has experienced this summer. Without monsoons — those afternoon rains in June, July and August — temperatures are hot and vegetation is dry.
For Colorado’s mushroom foragers, the weather this year has been disappointing to say the least. Kristen and Trent Blizzard are nationally-regarded foraging experts, known for their website Modern Forager — Kristen was a longtime Vail Valley local until she and Trent moved to Glenwood Springs.
The Blizzards authored a new wild mushroom cookbook, “Wild Mushrooms: How to Find, Store, and Prepare Foraged Mushrooms,” out on Oct. 13. The book shares the favorite recipes from foraging friends they’ve met in their nationwide mycological travels, as well as techniques to use them in your own kitchen.
They also took the time to speak with the Vail Daily about why 2020 has proved to be a bust year for mushrooms, and what that means for future foraging seasons. Below are edited excerpts from that conversation.
VD: We’ve had such a dry summer here in Colorado, which has been compounded by all the fires. What does that mean for mushroom season?
Kristen Blizzard: Even before the fires hit, we were struggling with mushroom season, which typically begins for us around mid-July. Except for morels, which are springtime mushrooms, and that was another thing we were all pretty excited for, because last year, in the Lake Christine fire, we had an amazing burn morel season. Morels grow in old wildfire scars.
Trent Blizzard: And they grew really well all along the rivers, in the spring too, last year.
KB: So we were all excited to check the fire for year two morels, and it was so dry in the spring, even, that those morels never really came. It was a terrible morel season this year, too.
TB: It was a lot of optimism, because we had a pretty normal snowpack year. And average is great. The snowpack was pretty normal going into March and April, and it just stopped raining in April. We had some snow in March, but it really just stopped precipitating. The morels never really came. Very, very few were found across the whole state in April and May, the normal months for the natural morels, and then the burn morels in June… never happened.
VD: Let’s back up for a second. What ecological factors do you need for a good mushroom season in Colorado?
KB: Obviously, snowpack plays a huge role, like Trent said. Above average, or at least average snowpack is a success factor. In Colorado, with such an arid climate, it really comes down to the rain. It’s all about rain. All of our mushrooms are rain-dependent. Some are more tolerant of dryness than others, but for the most part, pretty much all of our mushrooms need some sort of precipitation, if we didn’t have an extra great snow year, to flourish. If you don’t have those things, then you’re pretty much done before you even get started. In Colorado, it’s pretty cyclical. You get years like last year, where we had an amazing mushroom season until it stopped raining in mid-August. We had awesome mushrooms until the chanterelles were supposed to come out, and then we didn’t get the chanterelles because it stopped raining.
TB: There’s three seasons: spring, summer and fall. The snowpack in the spring really protects the higher elevation summer and fall mushrooms. The spring never happened, but everyone was really optimistic about July, August September.
KB: Right, so if we don’t have that monsoon thing begin to happen in early July, and we didn’t have enough snowpack to compensate for that, then pretty much you’re always looking at either a below-average or lackluster season in Colorado. We’ve had years where it’s been awesome, and other years where it just doesn’t really happen. This has been one of the very worst years in the last five or six years. It’s been incredibly hot as well as dry.
VD: You were talking about how the morels and the oysters come in the spring. Does the spring give you a clue as to what you might be able to expect in the summer?
KB: Actually, no.
TB: They’re very separate. Often that spring, we’re down at 6,000 feet elevation, runoff is usually happening and there’s usually some spring rain. When the summer comes, the runoff has already happened, and we’re looking for the monsoons to bring rain. But a big weather pattern, I think last year that’s what happened, we had several rainstorms roll through in June and July that kept it going. But then the monsoons didn’t happen, which meant the mushrooms really petered out by the second week of August. Even about two weeks without rain in the summer, things start to really move backwards.
KB: So if you have a bad season in the spring, you can be rescued and still have a good season, as long as the rains come. The traditional seasons that we’re used to, with these weather patterns that we’re having, it’s just more and more difficult in Colorado.
VD: When was the last time that you remember having a truly normal season?
TB: Last year was close.
KB: We had three-quarters of an awesome season last year.
TB: 2015 and 2016 were good years where we got all the different mushrooms for all the different seasons.
KB: It’s been about five years since we had consistently good seasons.
VD: That’s interesting, it sounds to me as though mushroom season is one way we’re seeing local impacts of climate change.
TB: There’s a few things on that front that I think are interesting. One, mushrooms don’t really care from year-to-year: they’re not gone, they’ll be back next year. They live under the earth, they live in tree roots, they might even come out better because they had a bad year this year. They will do just fine. This isn’t bad for the mushrooms. They’re happy to be dormant. It’s different for the trees. Many of these mushrooms in Colorado are called mycorrhizal, they live with trees. For instance, the porcini lives with the Engelmann Spruce. When trees die, especially from the bugs that kill the trees, when the trees loose their habitats, then the mushrooms are gone. That’s why the biggest long-term risk is deforestation.
KB: Or oil and gas industry coming in and taking over territory. Or even cattle grazing will affect mushroom territory. Maybe not permanently like the loss of a tree, but there are other things that are just as importantly more catastrophic than weather patterns. As long as the trees are alive, the mushrooms are happy to be dormant.
VD: Well yeah, it must be a huge bummer too, to wait all year for mushroom season and not get one.
TB: This year, with the pandemic, a lot of people in Colorado had got their heart set on finding mushrooms.
KB: It was a bummer, there was a lot of hope out there. We’re lucky here in Colorado too that we were able to get outside and enjoy nature during the pandemic, which a lot of other people could not do. We had high hopes, all of us, to get out and bond with nature this year. That’s why we live in Colorado, right? I will say, the Colorado mushrooms, compared to anywhere else we have been, are superior. Maybe honestly, because they live in such an arid climate, their flavors are intensified by that. Our Colorado species of porcini mushrooms, they are far superior.
TB: Everybody thinks their local mushrooms are the best. We think we’re right on this one.
KB: They are superior. We have the most apricoty, delightful chanterelles in Colorado, that I’ve encountered.
TB: Ours taste better.
KB: Really, they’re so good. Even though we’re finding mushrooms a lot of different places, I still really, really, really look forward to mushroom season in Colorado. The mushrooms are just so good.