Mushroom hunting a treasure in Routt County

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Bill Sanders is an avid hiker who thrills in the pursuit of mushrooms in the forests surrounding Steamboat Springs. He told me my hiking privileges with him would be suspended if I gave away his prize locations for finding tasty morels, chanterelles and other varieties he and his wife, Barb, enjoy collecting and eating.

Since part of the thrill of mushroom hunting is exploring the various habitats where they grow, I'll give you clues and let you make your own discoveries.

A word of caution, first. Never, never eat a mushroom unless you are absolutely certain it is one of the edible varieties. Many mushrooms that grow in the forests around Routt County are extremely poisonous.

Mushrooms are not considered plants or animals. They have their own classification in the Kingdom of Fungi. When making identification of a mushroom, you need to closely look at all of its basic parts. This includes the cap, stalk, gills (under the cap), the ring around the stalk (also called partial veil), the underground bulb and its mycelium (root-like tendrils). The spores of a mushroom, often seen as a dusting on plants around the mushroom, also help identify the type of mushroom.

A mushroom guide, such as the one published by the Denver Botanic Gardens and Denver Museum of Natural History, will provide photographs and detailed descriptions of these mushroom parts. Don't rely on photographs alone for identifying mushrooms. Read the descriptions and pay attention to notes on other mushrooms with a similar appearance.

Mushrooms need warming temperatures and moisture in order to begin fruiting. For the Steamboat area, the mushroom collecting season begins about now when the snow melts and ends in September when snows begin covering mushroom habitat. Some of the best environments for mushrooms are our forests with leaf litter and conifer needles that hold moisture in the soil.

One of the most exotic mushrooms in Colorado thrives here. The bright red Amanita muscaria is spectacular, but poisonous. Its apple-red cap with white spots is striking in a dark forest of mixed evergreens.

Morels (Pezizales morchellaceae) with their blond to black conical, brain-textured caps pop up in the early Spring under cottonwoods, along waterways, and in areas where the forest has burned. Beware of several types of false morel (Pezizales helvellaceae) which resemble the edible fungi, but are poisonous.

A tasty pine mushroom (Agaricales tricholomataceae) is found in late August through September under lodgepole pines at our elevation. They tend to fruit only when we receive late summer rains.

Oyster mushrooms (Aphyllophorales polyporaceae) are quite delicious when harvested young and can be found in clusters at the base of dead cottonwood trees in April through June.

Porcini mushrooms (Agaricales boletaceae) grow at high elevations just below timberline and can be harvested mid-July to September. They attach to the newest roots of Engelmann spruce and some hardwoods.

The beautiful chanterelle (Aphyllophorales cantharellaceae) fruits in July and August in the soil around lodgepole pine, mixed conifer stands and some aspen groves.

Mushroom hunting is a fun and popular pastime. Enjoy.

Deb Babcock is a Master Gardener through the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension office in Routt County. Questions? Call the CSU Cooperative Extension office at 879-0825 or e-mail to: gardeners@co.routt.co.us.

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