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Curious Nature: Go on the hunt for wild mushrooms in the valley

Ellen Terry
Daily Correspondent
Vail, CO Colorado

I’ve always harbored fantasies of taking a step back in time to the Wild West as a pioneer. Granted, there were many hardships, but one that excites me was the need to provide from the land. These early settlers could step outside and find a whole meal. No City Market for them! But what did the pioneers really do for sustenance? This summer, I’ve been munching on wild rose petals and some early serviceberries, but that only goes so far. For a dose of filling protein, important nutrients and minerals, wild mushrooms are the way to go!

As Coloradans, we are fortunate to live in a state with a variety of ecosystems, and almost all of them are home to mushrooms. Some 2,000 to 3,000 mushroom varieties can be found in Colorado alone! Herein lies the difficulty – only 50 to 100 varieties are edible. How do we go about identifying the tasty, nutritious ‘shrooms?

In order to identify a mushroom, you must know its general morphology, so let’s start with the basics. Everyone has heard the childish reasoning, “Eww, I’m not eating mushrooms; they’re fungus!” Well, it’s true. Mycelium is the term for the underground network of spindly fungus fibers. Mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of mycelium; they are actually the reproductive organs, which release spores.

There are many varieties of mushrooms that won’t kill you but they don’t necessarily make for good eating. Choice is the word used to describe edible and delicious mushrooms. The Eagle River Valley is home to some choice, prized mushrooms. Three of them are the king bolete, chanterelles and morels. Each is unique and found in certain environments. With the proper information, you will know where to track them down and how to identify each.

The king bolete is called the king for a good reason; its cap can be up to 10 inches wide! It’s a common mushroom and relatively easy to identify because of its size. The cap is a reddish-brown color, and the underside is sponge-like. This giant starts to show up around 8,000 feet and persists until treeline, making it a perfect fit in our neck of the woods. Look for them along the edges of meadows growing south of coniferous trees.

Chanterelles look a bit different from what you think of as a typical mushroom. They have a wavy, funnel-shaped cap, about 4 inches wide. They pop up in a variety of striking, bold colors, including yellow, red-orange and black. Dark, damp areas are where chanterelles do best, so look for this choice fungus in heavily wooded, coniferous forests.

Morels are even more unusual looking than chanterelles. They are characterized by a honeycomb-shaped cap that is longer than it is wide. If you find them, remember the spot! If the temperature and moisture are right, morels will return year after year in the same location. Good places to look are along waterways, in mixed forests and in areas that have experienced mild forest fire in the recent past.

Now that you have an idea of what to look for, you should prepare yourself with the right tools for foraging. A basket with an open weave or a mesh bag is a good item to have. The mushrooms will be better preserved if there is air flowing around them. Wrapping your finds in waxed paper is another good way to preserve them and keep different kinds separate. You will also definitely need a knife for cutting the mushrooms. Most importantly, bring a mushroom key and someone who is experienced in identifying species. Only eat a mushroom if you are 100 percent positive of its species. There are some potentially deadly mushrooms out there, so collect with caution.

August is the peak month for mushrooms in Colorado. It’s time to get out there, channel your inner pioneer and see what you can find!

Ellen Terry is a Summer Naturalist at Walking Mountains Science Center. Walking Mountains is open Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., with free admission. Naturalist-guided hikes are offered daily at 2 p.m.; come on out to explore your curious nature!


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