Good guidebook, knowledgeable friend keys to mushroom hunting

A few hours spent with good field guide, a dull knife and some patience can result in day’s bounty of wild mushrooms. these chanterelles were picked on Grand Mesa.

With Is bright red cap shining through the greenery, the Amanita muscaria, also called the fly agaric, attracts the eye but it’s a poisonous and psychoactive fungi. The mushroom is said to be responsible for the death of Czar Alexis of Russia and at least one literary theory holds that Lewis Carroll used Amanita muscaria as the model for the mushrooms in “Alice in Wonderland.”

First, this note: This is not a guide to mushroom hunting.

It is a story about searching for mushrooms on Grand Mesa and elsewhere, but don’t take it as the final word.

Ask around and you’ll find out there are old mushroom hunters and there are adventurous mushroom hunters but there are no old, adventurous mushroom hunters.

“For people born and bred in the U.S., the general tendency is to stay away from wild mushrooms,” said Jim Worrall, forest pathologist for the Gunnison National Forest and former college mycology professor. “But it’s really very easy to learn a few good edible mushrooms and completely distinguish them from anything else.”

Worrall is a mycologist, a biologist who studies fungi. His interest in mushrooms developed early, and prior to coming to western Colorado he spent 13 years teaching mycology to forestry students.

His position as forest pathologist offers plenty of opportunity to get out in the field, and Worrall said this summer has been one of the best mushroom seasons in years.

“This has been one of the best in my recent memory,” Worrall said Monday. “We had a lot of moisture throughout the summer, and I think the August monsoons really helped.”

Not surprisingly, a lot of other mushroom hunters have thought the same, and several places visited this past week already were picked clean.

“I’m not surprised a lot of people are out there taking advantage of it,” Worrall said. “I talked to some folks who had been on the Grand Mesa and they reported seeing a lot of good edibles.”

“Good edibles” are key words, since there are lots and lots of mushrooms and fungi that aren’t good edibles.

“The first thing people want to know is if it’s edible and is it going to poison them,” Worrall said. “Both are very good questions.”

Worrall tells people it’s similar to a bell curve, where the majority of mushrooms are in the center of the curve.

At one edge are the edibles, at the other the untouchables.

“The vast majority of mushrooms are neither very good nor poisonous,” he said. “They might be edible, but they don’t taste good and some may give you an upset stomach. But nothing really bad should happen.”

Still, mistakes can happen.

According to the eMedicine website, there are approximately 100 species of mushrooms poisonous to humans.

Of those, 15 to 20 mushroom species are lethal.

The website cautions, “no simple rule exists for distinguishing edible mushrooms from poisonous mushrooms. In more than 95 percent of mushroom toxicity (mushroom poisoning) cases, poisoning occurs as a result of misidentification of the mushroom by an amateur mushroom hunter.”

Worrall noted that many cases of mushroom poisoning occur in immigrants who see mushrooms similar to those back home.

“They’ve learned mushrooms in their own country and apply those rules here, but since our rules are different they don’t apply very well,” Worrall said. “For instance, in southeast Asia there are some good edible mushrooms that look not too unlike the amanitas.”

A mushroom warning poster from the North American Mycological Association includes warning in Spanish, Russian, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Cambodian, Laotian, Vietnamese and Thai.

Incidents of mushroom poisoning have been notable in people speaking these languages, newly arrived in North America, the association said.

The genus amanita includes some of the most recognizable and toxic mushrooms in the world. Several sources claim the genus is responsible for approximately 95 percent of the mushroom poisoning fatalities, with the fleshy white and unpretentious “Death Cap” accounting for about half of them.

David Fischer, writing on, says, “one might argue that the Death Cap’s notorious, relatively frequent victimization of Homo sapiens is far and away the best explanation (or rationalization) for the widespread fear of edible wild mushrooms.”

That fear is unfortunate, Worrall said, because a little knowledge can open a wonderful world of foraging.

“This year, my family and I have eaten probably five species of wild mushrooms,” he said.

Five species he knows very well.

“I’ve never had any worry, it’s just like I know a lot about them,” he said. “It’s very easy to learn to distinguish four or five easy-to-recognize mushrooms and stick with them.”

There are plenty of good guidebooks available. Worrall’s personal favorites are “Mushrooms of Colorado and the Southern Rocky Mountains” (1997, Denver Botanic Gardens, $25) by Vera Stucky Evanston and the “Audubon Field Guide to North American Mushrooms” ($20).

Other guides include Simon & Schuster’s “Guide to Mushrooms” ($20) and the out-of-print “Mushrooms of Colorado and Adjacent Areas” by Mary Hallock Wells.

“A good guidebook is always helpful, but I think the best way is to go out with someone who knows them and have them take you with them,” Worrall said. “Eating something randomly is not a good approach.”


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