Deb Babcock: Steamboat 'shrooms

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Harvesting mushrooms

Never eat a mushroom you've found in the forest unless you are absolutely sure it is edible.

Please use restraint when you find a patch of your favorite fungi, because overpicking can deplete a population and ruin future harvests. Be selective, and be gentle removing the mushroom so you don't disturb its mycelium.

Use a sharp knife to cut it just above ground level so you collect all the parts you'll need to ensure accurate identification.

Wrap each type of mushroom separately in wax paper (not plastic) and gently lay in a flat basket or container so as not to crush your prize. Spores from the mushrooms will drop through the basket as you walk, seeding the area for future harvests.

If you've been hiking the forests around Steamboat Springs lately, you might have noticed the amazing variety of mushrooms that are poking their heads through the leaf litter and conifer needles at the base of our trees. Mike, a mushroom enthusiast who works at Vidalia Market, helped me identify a few of the mushrooms I found during the past week.

First - a word of caution. 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. Don't rely on photographs alone for identifying mushrooms. Read the descriptions and pay attention to the notes on other mushrooms with a similar appearance.

Mushrooms are not considered plants or animals. They have their own classification in the Kingdom of Fungi. When identifying a mushroom, look closely 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 it.

Here are just a few of the mushrooms found along local trails last week:

- The bright red Amanita muscaria is spectacular but poisonous. Its apple-red cap with white spots seems otherworldly, hence its common name Sacred Mushroom. It really stands out in a dark forest of mixed evergreens.

- Porcini mushrooms, also called King Bolete (Boletus edulis), can be found in profusion right now and are of amazing sizes. This prized, edible mushroom has a large cap (up to 20 inches across) with a thick, somewhat bulbous stalk. The cap is a toasty, reddish-brown color. It is found among Engelmann spruce and other conifers as well as some hardwoods.

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

- Looking a bit like coral found in the ocean, the bright orange Ramaria largentii is usually found soon after a rainstorm and is not recommended for eating. It can have a laxative effect on some people.

- While looking closely at another mushroom, I glanced over and saw the strangest-looking mushroom, the Clavaria purpurea. This one looks like a group of 5-inch-tall purple worms standing on end and waving their heads (or tails?) in the air. Also called Fairy Fingers, this mushroom is edible, but I couldn't bring myself to even touch it.

- The Gem-Studded Puffball (Lycoperdon perlatum) also stands out along forest trails - even though it is quite small - because many of the ones I've seen are a very bright white. As they age, the color darkens to light tan hues. This is an edible mushroom, but it closely resembles the poisonous Amanita buttons at their immature stage.

For more information about mushrooms that grow in Colorado, pick up a copy of Vera Stucky Evenson's "Mushrooms of Colorado," which was published in cooperation with the Denver Botanic Garden and Denver Museum of Natural History.

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