What: Telluride Mushroom Festival When: Thursday through Aug. 22 Web site: www.shroomfestiva...
What: Crested Butte Wild Mushroom Festival When: Today through Sunday Web site: http://crested-bu...
It's mushroom season in the Rocky Mountains and after a damp summer, this fall has prospects for a mother lode of gourmet fungi bursting through the forest floors.
For mushroom hunters who have been thwarted by a multi-year drought, there's cause for celebration. Two Colorado mushroom festivals this month do just that, catering to everyone from the novice to the veteran mushroom hunter. The Crested Butte Wild Mushroom Festival starts today and runs through Sunday, and the Telluride Mushroom Festival starts Thursday and runs through Aug. 22.
After Colorado's wildfire season burned 915,291 acres in 2002, wild-mushroom enthusiasts salivated in anticipation of mushrooms, particularly nutty-tasting, cone-shaped morels, rising from the ashes in fire-disturbed soil. Unfortunately, Colorado's ongoing drought spoiled the 2003 feast for mushroom hunters. Because of the relatively dry spring, an expected bumper crop of morel mushrooms turned out to be a bust.
Luckily for mushroom fanatics, other wildfire-ravaged states have seen ongoing morel cycles for several years after burns, forest experts say. Because Colorado's morel explosion didn't happen initially, it's likely morel spores are lurking in the burned, nutrient-rich soil, ready to bloom if they get enough moisture, experts say.
Colorado "fungophiles" such as Dr. Manny Salzman, founder of the Telluride Mushroom Festival, are optimistic for a bountiful harvest of all kinds of mushrooms after this wet summer.
"People are waiting for the bonanza of morels to appear in the mountains," Salzman said. "The gourmet mushrooms of the world grow right here in Colorado," he said, listing a few -- porcini, chanterelles, shitake and boletes, "and morels -- now that's gourmet, five-star eating."
Salzman said Colorado's problem is its unreliable rainfall. Although mushrooms grow here, quantities will never approach the wet Pacific Northwest's abundance, he said. Morels, the superstars of post-forest-fire mushrooms, are lucrative for commercial gatherers and prized delicacies for hobbyists, particularly because they are difficult to grow outside their natural habitat. Morels sell fresh online for up to $55 per pound.
"Last year there were some flushes, but not near the flurry you might expect, like in Montana after their burn," said Johnny Proctor, forest botanist for the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forests. He blamed last year's low moisture and added that the morels generally require a delicate combination of warm soil, cool nights, limestone areas and disturbed soil.
Colorado's wet summer generated cryptic online reports from secretive mushroom hunters across the state saying the hunting is already shaping up well for fall -- especially for chantrelles.
The U.S. Forest Service considers mushrooms, like Christmas trees, a "special forest product." Any mushroom-gathering requires a permit, readily available from Forest Service offices. If mushrooms are not for sale, personal-use permits cost $10 a day for up to 5 gallons. Commercial permits range from $20 to $100, depending on the volume of mushrooms and number of gathering days.
"There's a cult of people out there who follow the fires and the mushroom hunting. It's pretty fanatic out there," added Cary Green, a forester with the White River National Forest.
Picking mushrooms doesn't harm the underground network of living fungi, known as mycelium.
"Picking a fruiting body of a fungi is like picking an apple from a tree," said Proctor, the forest biologist. "You're not taking the mushroom away, you're taking the fruit."
He said simply walking down the trail with a mushroom is a good way to re-seed by helping drop spores back into the environment as you walk.
Need help training your mushroom-hunting eye? Consider joining MacBailey, founder of the Crested Butte Mushroom Festival, for his practical, hands-on event this weekend, where not only did last year's guided forays find 130 mushroom species, but local restaurants cooked edible ones for gourmet sampling.
The Telluride and Crested Butte mushroom festivals offer workshops in mushroom identification, tasting, cooking and guided forays -- that's the official term for a "mushroom hunt."