FRISCO — Mushrooms sprout so suddenly after summer rains that ancient Greeks thought they were spurred by Zeus’ lightning bolts. Ever since then, they’ve radiated an otherworldly mystique celebrated from the toadstool-fairy cultures of Europe to the desert vision quests of Native American shamans.
It’s no wonder that the seasonal appearance of the fungal fruiting bodies drives us to gathering rituals that go back to the earliest days of human existence. Large and fleshy mushroom caps helped sustain roaming bands of hominids, especially during seasonal migrations.
Maybe that’s why some of today’s mushroom festivals in Colorado end with a trailhead cookout, with experts dishing up savory platters of fresh-sauteed mushrooms, gathered during a foray with a guide, cooked over a camp stove and dished up with crackers and wine. Several towns around Colorado are hosting events during the next few weeks, including the annual Denver Mushroom Fair on Sunday, Aug. 17, at the Denver Botanic Gardens.
The Colorado Mycological Society is also currently leading mushroom forays on many weekends in different areas. The trips are free to members and open to non-members for a nominal fee.
We hardly need wild mushrooms for subsistence today, but many varieties, including a handful in Colorado, are highly prized as delicacies. Our forests harbor massive porcini, spicy-sweet chanterelles and anise-scented Agaricus species that are closely related to the white button mushrooms you buy at Safeway.
We’ve also come to understand that the fungi are a truly elemental part of many ecosystems. In Colorado forests, many species grow linked together with the roots of certain trees. The coveted king bolete (aka porcini) grows in the roots of spruce and firs. The trees and mushrooms interact at the molecular level, exchanging nutrients to the benefit of both species.
Of course, other types of fungi destroy healthy and dead wood, representing an incredibly important link in the nutrient cycle, especially in Rocky Mountain forests where the soil layer is very thin. Recent studies suggest fungi may be key drivers in forest carbon cycles, perhaps as important as the trees themselves, an important nuance in the era of global warming.
“Fungi are absolutely essential in our native ecosystems,” said Vera Evenson, curator of the Sam Mitchel Herbarium of Fungi at the Denver Botanic Gardens. “A professor once said: ‘No fungi? No plants. No plants? No animals. No animals? No US!’
The underground part of the mushrooms effectively extend the reach of the trees root system, Evenson said. In return, the vascular plants give the mushrooms a boost of sugar and carbs produced by photosynthesis, which mushrooms can’t do because they aren’t plants.
Fungi persist across seasons under the forest floor through a fibrous or weblike network of “roots,” called mycelia. But they only send up their fruiting bodies — the familiar caps — for a few weeks, and only during the right combination of moisture and temperature. That’s why the Denver Mushroom Fair is held in mid-August every season, Evenson explained.
In an average year, collectors may bring more than 200 species for identification. All told, the herbarium has identified about 2,000 species in Colorado, and there are probably many more that haven’t been identified yet, simply because the season is so ephemeral, Evenson said. Check out a few more Colorado mushroom images at this Colorado Independent photo essay.
The fair is a great chance for people to learn all about Colorado’s diverse fungi, and in case you pictured mushroom experts as staid bunch, consider this: Over the years, collectors and researchers have given our mushrooms some colorful names. Witch’s Hat, Stinky Squid and Purple Fairy Clubs all grow in Colorado.
Several varieties fetch a pretty price at your local gourmet store. Dried porcini can sell for $40 per pound on Amazon; on a good day in Summit County, you might be able to gather 15 pounds in a few hours.
But experts don’t encourage willy-nilly gathering. It’s important to develop a sustainable collecting ethic and to learn how to identify fungi in their native habitat — especially when looking for edibles, Evenson said.
Mushroom poisonings happen every few years, usually when collectors mistake a non-edible species for a similar edible one. There aren’t a huge amount of deadly poisonous mushrooms in Colorado, but it only takes one.
Celebrate Colorado mushrooms
Last year, about 900 people attended the Denver fair. Thousands of mushrooms come with them, as people go out before the fair to find them, Evenson said.
“Many people find mushrooms in their yards, parks, on hikes and near their summer cabins,” she said. “They are curious and they bring them in for our identification.”
And if you happen to be road-tripping around Colorado the next few weeks, there are similar events in Crested Butte (Aug. 22-24), dedicated to educating visitors about regional mountain fungi with workshops, forays and lectures.
Closer to the Front Range, Buena Vista celebrates the mighty King Bolete (porcini or Steinpilz) Aug. 23-24. Some years, the coveted, earthy flavored gourmet mushrooms grow profusely in the forests around Cottonwood Pass, with single specimens weighing in at up to five pounds.
Telluride has the most comprehensive schedule of mushroom events Aug. 15-19, including talks about how fungi can help clean up contaminated waste sites and a must-see mushroom parade, featuring (sometimes) county commissioners in homemade mushroom costumes.
[Amanita muscaria, or fly agaric, is common in the Colorado high country in late summer. bberwyn photo.]