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Frolicking with fungi

Bob Berwyn
Summit Daily News/Bob Berwyn
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SUMMIT COUNTY – While the rains of July put a damper on some outdoor activities in the High Country, there is at least one segment of the population thrilled by the wet weather. Mushroom lovers, or mycophiles, say this season promises of a bumper crop of delectable boletus and chanterelles, along with a huge variety of other fungi that grow somewhat mysteriously in moist hollows and scattered throughout dense mountain forests. “It looks like a banner year,” said former Silverthorne Mayor Lou DelPiccolo, a long-time mushroom enthusiast. DelPiccolo specializes in finding the king bolete, also known as porcini, ceps, or Steinpilz, in German-speaking countries. While there are numerous other edible species to be found in the local hills – along with a few poisonous varieties – the boletus is prized for its size, firm flesh and powerful forest mushroom flavor.”They can be gorgeous. Some have such incredibly harmonious shapes … and enticing colors,” DelPiccolo said, aptly describing the handsome fungi, which can grow to dinner-plate size and often boast rich chestnut-brown caps on a bright white bulbous stalks. Instead of the gills commonly associated with many species, porcini feature a white to olive-green mass of spore tubes that looks a bit like a sponge.

Describing the incomporable flavor of a wild forest ‘shroom isn’t easy, so instead, DelPiccolo talks about the mouth-watering ways he prepares the mushrooms: “It depends on what you do with it. I like to broil them with a touch of olive oil and a touch of balsamic vinegar,” he said, with the recipes hinting at his Italian heritage. “Typically, I add something that is quite flavorful, maybe chives or garlic.”They complement so many things,” DelPiccolo said, suggesting a delicious combination of wild mushrooms and a blue cheese like Gorgonzola.DelPiccolo said he’s careful to pick only those mushrooms that appear firm and fresh, leaving the over-ripe specimens in place to drop their spores. Over-harvesting doesn’t appear to be a big problem in this area yet, but DelPiccolo said he’s seen a steady growth in the number of people out harvesting during the season.As a result, his favored “secret” stashes have dwindled, from 20 or 30 down to two or three, he said.”If you go to Hoosier Pass, it’s like the United Nations up there,” he said, explaining that the area has become exceedingly popular. Mushroom harvesting is part of many Asian and European cultures, and as Colorado’s demographics change with immigration, that interest is reflected in the level of activity in prime mushroom areas. “I’ve seen people with rakes up there,” he said. “No one should pick them unless they know what they are doing,” DelPiccolo said, referring to the potential danger of wild mushroom poisoning. To underscore the point, some mycophiles like to quote a well-known expert in the field, John Tate, who said, “All mushrooms are edible, some only once.”

A good guidebook, like Vera Stucky Evenson’s “Mushrooms of Colorado (Westcliffe Publishers), can help with some of the basics, but the best way to learn is to go out in the field with an expert. And several mountain communities in Colorado have set up events for people interested in learning more about mushrooms (see sidebar). Telluride, Crested Butte, Creede and Buena Vista will all host mushroom festivals during the next few weeks, featuring introductory talks, expert-led field trips (called forays my mushroom hunters), as well as cooking and tasting sessions. The Telluride mushroom festival even features a colorful mushroom parade, as well as talks by some of the top scientists in the field of mycology.A statewide get-together is set for Aug. 13 at the Denver Botanic Garden, when collectors from around Colorado gather for the annual mushroom fair, with an astounding array of fungi. Even in dry years, the mushroom fair features hundreds of different varieties, and this season could bring a true fungi bonanza.”One of the major factors that gets people started is the amazing ability of these organisms to pop up overnight. They’re tricky little devils,” Said Marilyn Shaw, a long-time member of the Colorado Mycological Society (CMS), the nonprofit group that organizes the mushroom fair in Denver. “They don’t have leaves, but the structures are intricate, beautiful and fascinating.”

“It’s a very nice hobby. It gets you out into the woods and you don’t need $2,000 worth of gear,” said Tom Ruzicka, another leading member of the CMS who sometimes leads forays in Colorado. “Even if I don’t get anything, I’ve spent the whole day out in nature.”And lest anyone think that mycologists take themselves too seriously, consider some of the creative monikers they have pinned on some of the multitude of varieties found around the world: Elegant stinkhorn, witch’s hat, red raspberry slime, red tree brain and stinky squid. With names like that, what’s not to love?

Far from being merely ornamental, fungi play a key role in many ecosystems, including High Country forests. The mushroom caps we see above ground in spring, summer and fall are fruiting bodies that sprout from an underground web of fibers called the mycelium, which is sometimes visible as a cottony or threadlike mass in the ground or on decaying tree stumps.Given the right combination of rain and temperature, the mycelium forms tiny pinheads that can grow into one-pound mushrooms within a few days. The purpose, of course, is procreation – a single mushroom cap can release millions of microscopic spores into the air in its short life. Where do they come from? Why do they appear so suddenly and profusely, only to vanish again a few days or even just hours later?Ancient Greeks thought they sprouted where Zeus’s lightning bolts hit the ground, since they appeared after summer thunderstorms. In the Middle Ages, the circular patterns formed by some mushroom species were called “fairy rings,” thought to be the work of elves.More recently, some mystics and spiritualists have espoused theories that the spores arrived from outer space riding piggy-back aboard meteorites, helping to spread a universal consciousness throughout the cosmos via the mind-altering qualities of the hallucinogenic mushroom species like psilocybe.In fact, fungi are about as down-to-earth as you can get. Together with bacteria, they are primarily responsible for recycling much of the earth’s organic waste, converting dead wood into nutrient-rich detritus, for example.

Fungi are neither plant nor animal. Biologists have given them their own kingdom, since they lack the chlorophyll that allows plants to convert solar energy directly into readily usable carbohydrates. Instead, like animals, they depend on organic material for nutrition.The kingdom of fungi includes thousands of microscopic species, including varieties that are responsible for fermenting grape juice and causing athlete’s foot. Other micro-fungi have allied themselves with blue-green algae to form lichen – a so-called dual organism that literally eats the rock it lives on, breaking it down into its mineral constituents.Without them, the forest landscape would not exist as we know it. In many cases, the strands of the mycelium intertwine with the root tips of trees and plants, sheathing them and in some cases even penetrating the cell walls of the roots. The two organisms merge in what is called a mycorrhizal relationship. The arrangement enables an exchange of nutrients. The fungi increase the absorptive capability of the root system many-fold and pass minerals along to the plant, receiving sugars and carbohydrates in return.Almost all green plants partner with fungi. Besides exchanging nutrients, the antibiotic properties of some fungi seem to protect tender root tips from bacterial attack. That shouldn’t be surprising, since some of the most potent antibiotics – including penicillin – were originally derived from fungi.Other species of fungi attack and parasitize trees, eventually killing them.But that is also a piece of a forest ecosystem, creating snags that can be hollowed out by cavity nesting birds. Still other varieties break down dead wood and leaves by digesting the tough cellulose and lignin and returning it to the soil in a form that can be used by growing plants.”They’re the recyclers of the natural world,” said Shaw. “They clear the forest of dead wood. Without them, we’d be up to our eyeballs in dead branches.”

Bob Berwyn can be reached at (970) 331-5996, or at bberwyn@summitdaily.com.Vail, Colorado


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