The rainy season is upon us at last. Skies open on a near daily basis, drenching anyone caught out in a cloudburst, followed by the reward of steamy rainbows fronting the sunlight that inevitably streams through. It’s a happy time of year for mushrooms, which flush into variously colored and shaped fruiting bodies from sometimes miles-long mycelium when the earth is warm and wet. Likewise, it’s a magical time for mushroom hunters, who will range long and far, through storm and mud, in search of so many surprises.
There are the slippery, gelatinous brown-capped Suillus with their soft, yellow, pore-sponge undersides; peach-colored, blue-staining Lactarius deliciosus; Morchella, the elusive black High Country morel; chanterelles of the genus Cantharellus; puffballs of the generas Calvatia and Lycoperdon and, of course, Boletus edulis, or porcini, the king of kings, with its firm, wine-red cap, bulbous legs and white fish-net stockings. All of these mushrooms are edible, each prepared in its own way.
Of course, there are also outright poisonous ones, such as the psychoactive Amanita muscaria with its bright red cap and white spots, the false morel Gyromitra and a host of LBM’s (little brown mushrooms) you don’t want to mess with. Some can kill you; others take out your liver — so eating a wild mushroom is never a decision to take lightly.
There are also mushrooms whose edibility is subject to debate, such as those in the genus Leccinum. Commonly called scaber-stalks for the brown hashmarks on their stems, or aspen boletes when they occur under aspens, these sponge-pored boletes have cap colors ranging from yellow-orange to red-orange. Some occur in a mycorrhizal relationship with aspens, some with conifers, and some are found in mixed forest zones. Although Leccinums are widely eaten in Europe and have long been considered choice edibles, the Rocky Mountain Poison Center receives occasional reports of severe gastric problems, some requiring hospitalization, from eating moderate amounts of aspen-associated “orange caps,” as Vera Stucky Evenson writes in “Mushrooms of Colorado and the Southern Rocky Mountains.”
“Some people get very sick. They don’t damage your liver, but they can make you vomit and vomit for hours,” said Evenson, who curates the Sam Mitchel Herbarium of Fungi at the Denver Botanic Gardens. She told of a family that vomited all night after eating aspen-associated Leccinums. “We recommend you don’t eat the ones that grow under aspen, just under conifers — and you have to look all around to make sure there aren’t aspens nearby,” since the trees’ root system can be extensive.
That said, there are people who continue to eat Leccinums without incident, so ultimately, it’s up to you whether you want to play vomit roulette.
Fortunately, just witnessing the beauty and diversity of mushrooms in the Rocky Mountain region is an end in itself; so new mushroom hunters needn’t feel pressured to consume any off the bat. It takes time to learn enough to make positive identifications with what wild food foraging expert Samuel Thayer calls “contradictory confidence” — so confident that you will fight a person on the point. And that has to happen before taking the risk of eating a wild mushroom.
Those just starting out or seeking answers can join the Colorado Mycological Society (www.cmsweb.org), which offers regional mushroom forays, a cook-and-taste event in October and an upcoming Mushroom Fair at the Denver Botanic Gardens on Aug. 11 from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., which is free with paid admission.
“The mushroom club is fun,” Evenson said. “Bring your mushrooms in and have them identified.”
In the field
Before heading out into the national forest, local mushroom hunters should know that a free personal-use permit is required. These can be obtained from the Dillon Ranger District. If you are visiting another region or state, check with the regional forest service office to find out if there are any regulations.
To collect specimens for study, pluck the whole mushroom and put each species in a separate paper bag or layer of paper in a basket. If you are collecting for the kitchen and know the mushroom you’re after, a knife works for cleaning off dirty parts in the field. (I always like to cover my tracks after that so as not to leave a mess, tossing some dirt over a cut stalk or tucking the detritus in the underbrush where the animals can make fast work of it.) A cloth or brush is good to clean off excess dirt, and a basket or pillowcase works for carrying the mushrooms. Or ask around. There are plenty of local folks — both homegrown and from Eastern Europe — who can break down the tricks of the trade for you if you are fortunate enough to win them over.
Don’t be lulled into thinking mushroom hunting is like shopping at the grocery store, for besides dirt there are also worms to contend with. Try to go for fresh, firm specimens. They’ll be worm-free, if you’re lucky, or at least host to small settlements, rather than entire civilizations, that you can cut around with a knife back in the kitchen. If the mushroom is so full of worm masses or activity that the flesh is yellow or brown, or if a piece is extra wormy, it’s best to discard it. But a few worm pioneers can be driven off with slicing and drying, or cooked right into a meal for an added protein punch.
Those with the fortitude to brave gray skies, sudden downpours, wiggling worms and the wee hours of dawn are rewarded with one of the earth’s most treasured prizes — edible, organic mushrooms growing wild and free.
Erica Marciniec has been hunting and eating local mushrooms for four years. For more of her stories on fungi and edible wild plants, visit www.wildfoodgirl.com.