Have you been walking in the woods in Durango or even your yard and stumbled upon a patch of mushrooms growing? If you have, that's because mushroom season is right now.
Did you ever wonder whether these mushrooms were edible or poisonous?
Mushrooms, which are part of the fungi kingdom, are decomposers and get their nutrients from organic waste material. They turn waste matter into usable nutrients for humans, other animals and plants.
Gavin Hauswirth, a Fort Lewis student who has been growing and foraging for mushrooms since middle school said, fungi are crucial to our ecosystem and versatile in uses and flavors.
Where to Find Mushrooms
Hauswirth said mushrooms grow seasonally and with the weather.
They can be found in late summer into early fall, and there's another flush of mushrooms when the snow melts in early spring, Hauswirth said.
Fort Lewis student and mushroom enthusiast Michael Phillips said that they encourage going foraging in overcast conditions just after a long period of rain because that’s the optimal time for mushrooms to appear.
Dr. Michael Remke, an ecologist, and Fort Lewis College biology lecturer said that the environment must be warm and wet for mushrooms to appear.
Kelli Henry, a Fort Lewis student and plant and mushroom forager said, “A lot of fungi are hidden behind foliage so you’ll have to get low to the ground.”
Phillips said, “Look near-dead stuff, because a lot of mushrooms are decomposers and saprobes, meaning they feed on dead tree carcasses.”
Henry said to go up toward higher elevations because it's out of town and away from any disturbances.
Mushrooms like growing in conditions with high soil moisture, Remke said.
Remke said, “If your garden is diverse, then you're likely to find mushrooms.”
The specific type of fungi popping up in your garden could be an indicator of what's happening in your garden ecosystem, Remke said.
“The first rule is if you don’t know what it is, don’t eat it,” Henry said.
“Foraging mushrooms is so different than foraging plants because when you take a plant you have to be conscientious; It’s not going to grow back,” Hauswirth said. “When you’re taking a mushroom or a fungus, you’re harvesting from a network that can span miles.”
Hauswirth said that carrying mushrooms in a basket is ideal for foraging because this allows the mushrooms to drop their spores as you walk.
Mushroom foraging is a community-based activity, Hauswirth said.
“You can’t rely solely on field guides and manuals, and you can’t rely solely on word of mouth and people, it needs to be a combination,” Hauswirth said. “It can be dangerous if you don't take proper precautions.”
Henry said she warns people that getting lost is very easy so it's important to bring a GPS or go with people who know the area.
Phillips said, “There are no mushrooms that’ll kill on contact, but there are very many that can totally, absolutely, kill the heck out of you if you eat them.”
“To me, foraging is more of a hobby, but you can turn it into a staple part of your diet,” Henry said. “You have to be open to a lot of different flavors and things that you’re not used to.”
The Types of Mushrooms Found in Our Community
Some examples of edible mushrooms that grow in the Durango area are morels, wine caps, puffballs, chanterelles, bolites, hawk’s wings and slime molds, Phillips said.
Remke said the San Juan Mountains are famous for a type of mushroom called hawk’s wings. He said they’re a distinguishing trait of our region.
Phillips said, “Puffballs spread their spores, unlike most mushrooms, through a cap with gills, as a big fluffy ball, and when it’s stepped on, it’ll release all of its spores as a powdery Substance.”
Henry said, if you take a big slice of a puffball, you can make a pizza out of it.
Hauswirth said, slime molds can be found on rotting sticks and logs, and mixing the mushroom with eggs is a delicious way to incorporate these into your palette.
“It gives the eggs a nice earthy flavor,” they said.
Morels can be found up in the burn zones, Hauswirth said.
Henry said that wine cap mushrooms go well in soups and have a mild potato-like flavor.
The gills of chanterelle mushrooms are a key identifying trait of the species, Hauswirth said. They have false gills, meaning they have shallow forked ridges, he said. Usually, chanterelles have a fruity apricot smell, he said.
“You can find bolites, which are probably one of my favorites,” Hauswirth said. “They don't have any gills,” they said. ”They have these little pores on the bottom and they have a soft spongy texture.”
Remke said around here, bolites, puffballs, morels and chanterelles are the most common and plentiful edible mushrooms.
Why Mushrooms Matter
“Mushrooms are such a diverse, untapped food that we are not taking advantage of in this country,” Hauswirth said. “the world wouldn’t be the same without mushrooms.”
Phillips said not only what they do for the environment is great, but there are many health benefits associated with fungi.
Hauswirth said mushrooms have compounds that many plant-derived medicines don't have in them.
Reishi, chaga, maitake, lion’s mane and cordyceps can provide many health benefits including liver detoxification and improved heart health and circulation, Remke said.
Lion's mane can also be used as an Alzheimer’s preventative, Philips said.
“Mushrooms are just a tiny reproductive organ protruding from a mycelium network,” Phillips said.
Phillips said, mycelium is the root-like structure of a fungus and is made up of thread-like branches.
“Mycelium is spread out in sheets of neural networks underneath the ground that can span miles,” Phillips said.
Remke said, “greater than 90% of plants living on land are dependent upon fungi.”
Remke said, “Without fungi, we wouldn't have plants living on the terrestrial surface of the earth.” He said, “Fungi allowed for plants to colonize land.”
“Fungi deserve more appreciation,” Phillips said.” We hug the trees too much and we don’t hug the ground.”
“People tend to look at mushrooms as just something that’s kind of gross on pizza but they really are a lot more special than that,” Phillips said.