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Thursday, May 1,2014

Morel madness in Colorado

Wild mushroom foraging season begins in the grassy cottonwood bosques

By Bob Berwyn
Donald Hughes
Morels growing in a burned area

Mushroom hunters are a strange bunch to begin with, scurrying through the forest with their eyes glued to all the damp and shady spots on the ground, hoping to find that treasure trove of delectable fungi. The morel-seeking clan is especially zealous for a particularly delicious variety starting to sprout along some Boulder-area streambanks right now.

Morels look like brains on a stem and grow beneath newly greened cottonwoods in many Colorado river valleys. They’re highly prized for their tantalizing combination of sweet, earthy and savory flavor and aroma.

The very idea of morels is so tantalizing that when California mushroom-hunter Donald Hughes once came across a huge batch of morels he unexpectedly found in a recently burned area and was out of room in his traditional mushroom basket, he simply took of his jeans, tied the pant-legs, stuffed them full of the tasty treats and hiked for several miles in his undershorts.

You don’t have to go to California to find morels. They grow, in modest quantities, right here in Colorado, in Front Range cottonwood bosques and in the high country, often where fires have altered the soil chemistry, or beneath ancient spruce and fir trees.

Morels are so popular they have their own website called, naturally, The Great Morel. And once you’ve read the recipe for morels in wine sauce, you’ll want to head out to banks of the South Platte immediately with a sharp knife and basket, ready to search, harvest and cook. But you might want to get some help, because morels are tough to find.

That’s when you’ll want to hook up with the Colorado Mycological Society — a group of folks who give their fungal finds official names like purple fairy club, red raspberry slime and witch’s hat.

The group meets regularly at the Denver Botanic Garden and as the spring and summer season ramps up, hosts regular outings, called forays, on weekends.

Vera Evenson, curator of the fungi collection at the Denver Botanic Garden, says the emphasis isn’t just on gathering edibles, it’s also on learning about the secret life of fungi by finding habitats.

Our squishy mushroom friends are key links in forest ecosystems. They act as basic recyclers and also helping to sustain forest growth by linking symbiotically with trees, shrubs and grasses to facilitate nutrient cycles.

“I look at all fungi as important,” says Evenson, who wrote the book on Colorado mushrooms. She is in the process of updating a new edition — a good thing, because the original version is out of print and selling for up to $245 on eBay.

While a lot of people develop an interest in mushrooms because they want to harvest edibles, scientists like Evenson also emphasize that hunting for mushrooms should be approached with a natural resources stewardship ethic, and an eye toward safety. Several species of very toxic fungi grow in Colorado. Each year, medical treatment after ingesting the wrong kind.

Respecting the habitat and private property rights, and thinking about sustainable harvests are also essential, Evenson says. Making sure the fungi can sustain themselves Connect with is usso important that some national parks require morel hunters to use a mesh bag to ensure spore dispersal.

Becoming a mushroom-habitat Jedi will help in the quest for edibles, says Evenson, encouraging beginners to learn about forest ecology and the incredible life cycle of mushrooms, which have their own kingdom alongside plants and animals.

The mycological society doesn’t have any specific spring treks scheduled just yet, but it offers monthly meetings for newbies interested in connecting with the mushroom hunting community.

Jason Salzman, a long-time urban mushroom hunter who has prepared incredible gourmet mushroom feasts with specimens he collected in parks and along sidewalks in “downtown” Denver says that morels aren’t the only edible mushrooms to pop up in the spring, something he writes about on his website: http://urbanmushrooms.com.

“You could find oyster mushrooms growing on a dead cottonwood, aspen or birch stump,” Salzman says, describing another tasty variety that seems to sprout when spring rains follow the melting snow. 

Salzman says the oyster mushrooms aren’t very common in the wild, but if you do find some and develop a taste for them, they’re among the easiest mushrooms to cultivate, requiring just an old cottonwood stump in your backyard that has been inoculated with a starter kit and then kept moist to keep the mushrooms coming.

Even in the high country, a few edible species can appear shortly after the snow melts away. In the forest, dark brown wood-ear mushrooms often cover the moist north side of fallen spruce trees. The shiny wood ears dry well and make great mushroom soup, Salzman says, adding that they’ve been used for centuries in Chinese medicine.

“There’s a whole study of what we call snow-bankers,” Evenson says.

Evenson says the sun reflecting off the edge of a big snow berm heats the ground a couple of extra degrees along the edge, helping mushrooms sprout in the favored microclimate.

“Some of them are very interesting, very beautiful and colorful, and some are edible ... They start coming in May,” she adds.

Evenson says last September’s floods may have had a significant impact on some of the popular morel-hunting areas along the Front Range. The rushing waters have scoured many streambanks down to bare rock, toppling the cottonwoods that are part of the morel ecosystem.

Evenson said the luscious morel is also an important part of post-wildfire ecology. The study of fire mushrooms is just evolving, but it’s clear that fungi like morels help convert some of the burned material back into a more easily accessible nutrients for new plants gaining a foothold in the fire scar.

“They play an important role in holding the soil ... When there are big fires in Alaska or Canada, they send commercial pickers,” she says, describing how the morels can grow in vast fields, where pickers can gather hundreds of pounds. Evenson says she has found a few morel specimens in some of Colorado’s recent burn scars, but not on the scale that happens farther north.

Later on in the summer, of course, the high country is a hotbed of fungal fun, as towns like Creede, Crested Butte, Leadville and Telluride all celebrate mushroom festivals. All the events feature field sessions with experienced guides, along with trailhead or evening tasting events and evening presentations on mushroom lore and science.

The most popular varieties during the height of the season in mid-August include famed porcini, which can weigh in at up to five pounds each, as well as spicy-sweet chanterelles, another cherished gourmet species.

More information about those festivals as well as mushroom hunting groups and meetings is available at www.cmsweb.org.

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

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