Boletes abound as High Country mushroom season begins to wind down | SummitDaily.com
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Boletes abound as High Country mushroom season begins to wind down

Erica Marciniec
Special to the Daily
Special to the Daily/Erica MarciniecKing boletes are prized finds among mushroom hunters.
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Mushroom season should be starting to wind down in the High Country about now, though finds of edible boletes spurred by rains and warm temperatures were reported last week.

The big, prized king boletes (Boletus edulis), also known as porcini, have a wine-colored cap with a spongy pore mass (as opposed to gills) underneath. Their stalks are bulbous and white with a pattern of fine netting. Porcini is a Rocky Mountain favorite, and one that Jana Hlavaty, the U.S. Olympian who heads up the Keystone Nordic Center, collects each fall to dry or saute and freeze for year-round use.

“At the height of the season my whole house smells like a mushroom,” said Hlavaty, who is originally from Czechoslovakia, where her grandmother was a well-known mushroom expert. “There are sliced mushrooms everywhere – on all the extra beds, couches (and) tables, all either on white clean paper … or on clean dish towels.”

“Surprisingly the variety and the kinds of the mushrooms – not good and good – are the same in Europe as well as here – at least, I did not experience any tummy aches,” Hlavaty said of her effort to learn the local mushrooms. In addition to king boletes, she also collects “aspen boletes” (aspen-associated Leccinum species), which have a spongy pore mass like porcini but distinctive orange caps sitting atop white stalks with short brown tufts or scabers on them.

According to Vera Stucky Evenson, curator of the Sam Mitchel Herbarium of Fungi at the Denver Botanic Gardens, however, eating the aspen orange cap is risky business.

“The Rocky Mountain Poison Center receives occasional reports of serious gastric problems, some requiring hospitalization, from eating moderate amounts of so-called orange caps, usually well cooked, found under aspen in various part of Colorado,” Evenson says in her guidebook, “Mushrooms of Colorado and the Southern Rocky Mountains.” “It is becoming obvious that Colorado has a poisonous species or variety of L. insigne or L. auranticum, but so far it has not been identified.”

“No one knew until we started getting these reports,” Evenson added. “It doesn’t affect your liver or kill you; it just causes horrendous projectile vomiting.” That said, she still knows plenty of people who eat them (experts included) – until they get sick, that is.

Clearly hunting mushrooms for food is not a pastime to be taken lightly. Misidentification or over consumption can lead to “gastronomic distress,” and there are a few deadly poisonous species out there as well. Still, it is a skill that can be learned, starting with the easiest mushrooms to identify and working up to more difficult or risky species. With wild mushrooms – or any other wild food, for that matter – comes the opportunity for exotic, not to mention organic, culinary adventures.

Amateurs should cross-reference multiple guidebooks while also seeking expertise like that of Hlavaty, who offers a one-day Colorado Mountain College mushroom hike each August. Evenson’s guide is excellent and pertains to Colorado mushroom hunting in particular. Membership in the Colorado Mycological Society, which hosts mushroom forays with experts, is another option.

In addition to king boletes and other edible boletes such as slippery jacks (Suillus brevipes), which were up en masse this past week, other local edible fungi abound, including puffballs of all sizes, shaggy manes (Coprinus comatus), the polypores Albatrellus confluens and Albatrellus ovinus and even delicious milk caps (Lactarius deliciosus), a green-staining, light orange gilled mushroom popular in Europe – though less so here. Many people stick to king boletes, however.

Positive identification is essential, including knowing poisonous look-alikes and warnings specific to each individual mushroom. When trying a mushroom for the first time, keep a sample to show the toxicologist in the case of a mistake and eat just a little the first time around, waiting 24 hours to observe its effect on the body.

For Evenson, there is much more to mushroom hunting than seeing the forest as a dinner plate.

“Mushrooms are fascinating and beautiful,” she said, “and they provide a real service in the natural world, either digesting or breaking down natural compounds that are usable by plants, or living with a particular tree or shrub. Some plants would be helpless without mycorrhiza,” the symbiotic relationship in which “mycelium physically interacts with the tree, providing nutrients and moisture,” she explained. In turn, “the fungus gets the sugars that the photosynthesizing tree can produce.”

“All birds are edible too,” Evenson added. “Why do all ornithologists not go out and eat birds? Because they are fascinated with their beauty” and everything else about them, a perspective she hopes to engender among mushroom hunters as well. Still, she admits that humans might simply be hard-wired to see mushrooms as food.

This is certainly the case for many Europeans, as mushroom hunting is more popular abroad than it is stateside, despite a few local aficionados.

“My whole family, and for that matter the whole nation of Czechs, are possessed with picking them and drying them or eating them cooked (or) sauteed,” Hlavaty said. Even here in Summit County, “the majority of the people we run into in the woods have an accent: Czech, Polish, Italian, German, Russian – lately there are TONS of them.”

Hlavaty’s mother still lives in Europe. Now 91, she suffers macular degeneration and has two replaced joints, so she is no longer fit for mushroom hunting, “but she loves to eat them, adding them to meat dishes, pasta and rice,” Hlavaty said. So, each year when she heads home to Europe to visit, Hlavaty packs an additional suitcase with several containers of dried boletes for her mom.

“I would like to get the chanterelles,” said Hlavaty, who is primarily a bolete collector, “but (I’ve) never found any on the Keystone side.” Supposedly there are chanterelles to be found in Breck, “but nobody is sharing,” she said. “Oh well – just like me and my friends Kikken and Annie – we are not sharing our secret places, either.”

In addition to her summer stint with The Summit Daily, Erica Marciniec maintains a regular blog about edible wild plants, including mushrooms, at http://www.wildfoodgirl.com. In winter she trains snowboard instructors at Breckenridge, occasionally teaching skiing, “but only in Spanish.” Once called a “mujer de renacimiento” (Renaissance woman) by a ski student from Mexico, Erica holds a master’s degree in Technology-Based Education and serves as an adjunct faculty member at Colorado Mountain College, where she teaches graphic design.

>Sam Mitchel Herbarium of Fungi at the Denver Botanic Gardens: http://www.botanicgardens.org/content/sam-mitchel-herbarium-fungi

>Colorado Mycological Society: http://www.cmsweb.org

>A recommendation from Evenson: http://www.mushroomexpert.com


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