Curious Nature: Why Colorado’s wild mushrooms are important to ecosystem
Imagine you’re on a hike. The air is crisp, the sun is shining, and the soil feels soft and moist under your shoes.
You’re taking in the scenery — the birds, the trees, and what is this? A strange, small umbrella-like structure that seems to have just popped out of the ground.
It certainly is no animal, and it looks nothing like any flower or shrub you’ve seen before. That’s because it is neither.
It is in a classification all its own — the fungi kingdom. More specifically, it is a mushroom.
Here in Colorado, mushrooms are plentiful. Colorado’s climate is excellent — we get the right amounts of sunlight and rain to make for productive soils in which mushrooms and other fungi thrive. In fact, mushroom enthusiasts from far and wide flock here during peak mushroom hunting season.
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But before we dive into the mysterious and exciting world of local mushrooms, we should get familiar with how truly important they are to the functionality of our greater ecosystem.
The ultimate recyclers
Fungi are crucial for energy cycling within and between ecosystems. They can be found in many forms, such as mushrooms, and are present in terrestrial, marine, and freshwater environments.
Why are they so important? Fungi are the decomposers in virtually every food web on the planet. This means that they break down dead plants and animals and return energy back into the ecosystem by transforming organic matter into food for plants. They break down substances, such as bones, that most organisms are unable to digest.
Other kinds of mushrooms, known as mycorrhiza, grow on the forest floor and link the roots of trees together, making for an easy exchange of nutrients between different plants. This can be thought of as a kind of communication system for plants, in which they can communicate about things like fighting diseases and preparing for droughts.
Not only are they the ultimate recyclers, but fungi can be edible too. The Colorado Mycological Society (CMS) has all kinds of resources and outings that help locals and visitors alike get comfortable with mushroom hunting. However, use extreme caution when looking for mushrooms to eat because many can be poisonous!
When exploring mushrooms, be sure to have a trusted field guide on hand. Most Colorado mushrooms grow alongside trees — in both coniferous or hardwood forests. There are many good locations in the Eagle Valley for mushroom hunting, but be careful what you collect while in well-traveled areas as mushrooms can also be food for wildlife, including badgers, deer, mice, raccoons, rabbits, and even slugs and snails!
Our state is home to nearly 3,000 varieties of mushrooms, the second largest concentration in the country after the Pacific Northwest. Of the wild variety of mushrooms found here, we have about 50-100 edible ones, including oysters, morels, chanterelles, and porcinis.
But we also have around 100 poisonous species. Foraging season is from May to October — and the best time to go is after a good rain. There is much to learn about all the different kinds of mushrooms Colorado has to offer — but make sure to consult an expert, sign up for an identification course, or take along a field guide and know how to use it before you start eating them.
Tessa Cafritz is a Naturalist at Walking Mountains Science Center. She is fascinated with all walks of life—especially fungi. After learning more about the abundance of fungi found here in Colorado, Tessa was eager to learn more about them!