Know your super food as you forage for fungi in western Colorado
In a moment absolutely reminiscent of a similar scene in the 1967 angst-ridden movie “The Graduate,” a friend sidled up to me during a get-together last week near Paonia, uttered that single word and faded into the dark.
Apparently, she recognizes a fellow mycophiliac (that’s a mushroom lover) when she sees one.
We’re not alone in our love of foraging for wild mushrooms.
In her fact-filled and delightful book “Mycophilia — Revelations from the Weird World of Mushrooms,” author Eugenia Bone says that besides the many thousands of part-time and hobby-style mushroom hunters in America, there are about 1,000 mushroom connoisseurs who may be classified as pros.
These, writes Bone, are “folks who live every day with an intimate knowledge of a huge segment of the natural world that I didn’t even know existed.”
I’m glad you asked. The largest fungus, and purportedly the largest living single organism on Earth, was discovered, Bone shares gleefully, in 1998 in Malheur National Forest in the Blue Mountains of eastern Oregon.
This particularly immense Armillaria gallica (which produces the edible honey mushroom) covers 2,200 acres — that’s like 1,666 football fields — and is estimated to be at least 2,400 years old.
Although we have no idea how such exactitude was reached, Bone does note the fungus largely is made of mycelia, those extra-fine ropey strands through which a mushroom absorbs nutrients.
According to renowned mycologist and author Paul Stamets (sometimes called the “Steve Jobs of fungus” and annually considered one of the more popular presenters at the Telluride Mushroom Festival) mushrooms have much to teach us.
“Mushrooms and their mycelium guard the ecosystem, connect food chains, and are one of the primary pillars of the food web — recycling nutrients and playing a critical role in keeping the forests and fields healthy,” Stamets said in a 2009 interview with Mother Earth News. “Mushrooms and their mycelium are quiet allies that are essential for our healthy existence. They are enigmatic, have a sense of humor, and socially as well as spiritually, bond together all that admire them.”
Colorado has 2,000 to 3,000 species of mushrooms, which Stamets says is the second-largest concentration in the country after the Pacific Northwest.
That makes it doubly important to know what you’re picking when mushroom foraging, says Jim Worrall, forest pathologist for the U.S. Forest Service in Gunnison.
“Stick with the well-known ones, the ones that are very common, and get to recognize them every time,” said Worrall, who has led several mushroom-identification walks and seminars on Grand Mesa. “Once you get a season or two of really knowing those mushrooms under your belt, then maybe you’re ready to branch out.”
There are several methods to improve your mushroom hunting, said Worrall, who strongly recommended a novice mycophiliac “go with someone who knows mushrooms and has successfully collected and eaten them.”
Worrall paused and then laughed.
“I guess if they’re still around for you to go with them, they’ve been successful,” he said.
He also recommended not scrimping on the field guides.
Not all books will have all mushrooms species, and the best-illustrated books often have fewer species than the more-technical books.
“There are a lot more species in the woods than there are in the books,” he said.
The drought hanging on for most of this year has caused some concern among mushroom lovers worried that the dry conditions might not produce mushrooms.
It was the recent rains that spurred my friend’s cryptic comment, a verbal trumpet blast that the fungus season might just be starting.
“Last year was dry, too, and not great for mushrooms,” Worrall said. “But up here (in Gunnison) the second half of this summer has been very wet, and the mushrooms could be spectacular.”
Probably not spectacular enough for my friend to reveal the whereabouts of those coveted morel mushrooms she found last year.
Morels, writes Bone, are enjoyed by “the elite and the hoi-polloi ...(and) sometimes are called ‘redneck caviar.’ ”
Worrall warned not to expect mushrooms, morels and otherwise, right away, because the moisture arrived too late for most of the growing season.
“They may need a little time to recover before they are ready to fruit,” Worrall said. “Some people say it’s the conditions from the year before that determine how much fruiting you see this year, but the fact is nobody really knows for sure.
“There’s a lot we don’t know about mushrooms.”