Chasing Light: Colorado’s fabulous fungi

I started thinking differently about mushrooms when I learned that some spores must pass through the digestive system of a squirrel before they can reproduce. This is not a problem, because the squirrels are crazy about the big, fleshy caps, which grow in the thick piles of debris created as the squirrel munch hundreds of cones, thus creating the habitat for the fungi.

The Suillus fungus shown in the first image grows commonly in my backyard, so I can watch the ‘shrooms, and the squirrels, on a daily basis. If I didn’t know better, I would say the squirrels are “farming” the mushrooms — or maybe it’s the other way around! Either way, I’ve learned that my backyard mushroom-squirrel cycle really shows how closely our fungi are linked with our forests.

Forest scientists also know this, and have been using mushrooms to try and help sustain threatened whitebark pines in the northern Rockies, where global warming and bark beetles are wiping out the iconic high-elevation trees. Especially in their seedling stage, the trees are partly dependent on the fungi to deliver nutrients in usable form.

The next few weeks marks the peak of Colorado’s mushroom season. Seekers of wild edible varieties are headed for the hills and preparing to gather for the annual Denver Mushroom Fair Sunday, Aug. 17, at the Denver Botanic Gardens.

Several other towns around the state are also celebrating mushrooms during the next few weeks. Check this Colorado Independent feature story for more information.