Local foragers delight in the hunt for wild mushrooms from spring to fall.
By Lisa Truesdale
Colorado has a relatively dry climate and most wild mushrooms thrive in high-moisture areas. So it makes sense when people assume this state isn’t a prime spot for mushroom foraging.
Those people would be wrong, however. Colorado is home to hundreds, maybe thousands, of species of wild mushrooms. And although only about 15% of those have been identified, and dozens of them are poisonous, there are at least 40 to 50 edible species growing here throughout the year.
“Yes, Boulder can be pretty dry,” says Zach Hedstrom, a local mushroom enthusiast who teaches a variety of foraging-related classes at Boulder’s Harlequin’s Gardens. “But if you know what you’re looking for, you can chase mushrooms up the mountains for several months in spring, summer and fall.”
If it hasn’t rained in a week or two, Hedstrom says it’s probably not a great time to go hunting. But beginning as early as mid-April each year, if there’s a lot of spring runoff or rain, prime mushroom season begins around that time with the very popular, highly sought after, hard-to-find morels.
Kathy S. is a Nederland-area resident who knows how difficult it is to find morels. In fact, that’s the reason why she doesn’t want her full name used. That way, she says, no one can track her down and pressure her to reveal her favorite foraging locations, known to foragers as “honey spots.”
“Morels are particularly popular, since they only grow in the wild and can’t be cultivated,” she explains. “They also have a fairly short growing season here, so if I reveal the best places to find them, I won’t ever get any.” She sells any extras she finds to a chef-friend of hers, who prepares them for his catering clients.
Resources & Events
Colorado Mycological Society, cmsweb.org.
July 21 & 28: Foraging for Rocky Mountain Mushrooms, 10 a.m. both days at Harlequin’s Gardens, 4795 N. 26th St., Boulder; harlequinsgardens.com/classes.
Aug. 11: CMS Annual Mushroom Fair at Denver Botanic Gardens, 1007 York St., Denver.
Aug. 14-18: Telluride Mushroom Festival in Telluride.
After Colorado’s morel season, which normally ends around the beginning to middle of June, there’s usually a bit of a hiatus until about mid-July, when the season gets into full swing and mushroom hunters set off in search of porcinis, chanterelles, matsutake and several varieties that might sound foreign to newbies but are prized by veteran foragers.
Hedstrom says the prime season in Colorado can go until early-October or even later, depending on the weather.
“I love cooking and eating wild mushrooms,” Hedstrom says, “but for me, it’s more about the process of discovery, kind of like when you go birding and have fun identifying the different species of birds you see.”
Here are Hedstrom’s tips for how to start wild mushroom foraging.
Learn, learn, learn. Never eat a wild mushroom you can’t identify with absolute certainty, he says, as there are several “lookalike” mushrooms—poisonous varieties that closely resemble edible ones. Hedstrom suggests newbie foragers join a local mycology group, such as the Colorado Mycological Society, and attend meetings, group trips and guided hunts. He also encourages beginners to take foraging classes to learn about local species, like the classes at Harlequin’s Gardens, and to invest in a good mushroom field guide, like “Mushrooms of the Rocky Mountain Region” (Timber Press, 2015), to help identify mushrooms. “It’s a long learning process, so when you’re not sure, ask someone who knows,” he says.
Know what to take on a hunt, and why. Hedstrom says your mushroom field guide, and a basket, a mesh bag, an open-weave produce sack or other porous container. “You want the mushroom spores to fall to the ground as you walk, so that others will grow in those areas in the future,” he says. Also, a sharp knife for cutting mushrooms. “Always cut mushrooms at the stem, unless you’re using the base for identifying the species and need to dig up the entire thing.” And a mushroom brush, because you “never wash mushrooms with water,” he says. “Always brush off the dirt.” A paintbrush works well too, or any brush with firm bristles. Bring waxed paper for wrapping mushrooms after you find them; never store them in plastic or Saran wrap. “Wrap different species separately in your basket, to avoid poisonous ones contaminating edible ones.” And take a knowledgeable expert with you. “Go with a friend or a group that can help you identify the mushrooms you find,” he says.
Be cautious. Don’t eat mushrooms as you find them; it’s not like picking berries where you sample as you go. Wild mushrooms should always be cooked before eating, and they should always be positively identified before you cook them. “Also, there are many inedible lookalikes. For instance, the shrimp russula (Russula xerampelina) is edible, but the red russula (Russula emetica), which looks fairly similar, causes vomiting.” (Note: Mushrooms must be ingested to be poisonous. You won’t get sick from contact alone, like you would from poison ivy.)
Adhere to sound ecological practices. Tread lightly, don’t leave behind trash and don’t forage on private property or any public lands where gathering is prohibited. “Don’t dig up the entire thing unless it’s necessary for identification purposes,” Hedstrom adds, “and don’t take all the mushrooms you find; leave some for the next forager.” He also says not to pick things just because you find them, and if a mushroom is growing near a busy street, definitely don’t pick it, since it’s likely absorbed toxic chemicals from passing cars.
Thena Franssen is a morel mushroom fanatic who lives in Missouri, where morel season runs from about the end of March to mid-May. In early June, she traveled to Colorado, with the hopes of finding some end-of-season morels here, thanks to a friend who was willing to share her “honey spot.” On Franssen’s blog, HodgepodgeHippie.com, she gives these tips for cleaning and cooking morels:
• Soak morels in cold saltwater for 20 to 30 minutes to wash away the debris and bugs that can be hiding inside. Lift them out of the water, place them in a clean colander and rinse them with cold running water to flush away any remaining debris. Drain well and place them on clean paper towels or a dishtowel. (Note: Although most mushroom hunters strongly believe you should never wash mushrooms, morels have a unique honeycomb structure that tends to trap dirt and creatures deep inside, so Franssen makes an exception.)
• Coat morels lightly in flour, or in beaten egg and then flour.
• Sauté morels in oil or butter (Franssen uses coconut oil), for a couple of minutes on each side.
If you’re lucky enough to find an abundance of morels, more than you can eat within a week, they can be dehydrated and stored indefinitely for use year-round. (Find dehydrating instructions on YouTube.) —L.T.