Deb Babcock: Mushrooms of the Routt County forest

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If you’ve been hiking the forests around Steamboat Springs this fall, you might have noticed a wide variety of mushrooms that are poking their heads through the leaf litter and conifer needles at the base of our Alpine trees despite this year’s low amount of moisture.

Mushrooms are not considered plants or animals. They have their own classification in the fungi kingdom. When making identification of a mushroom, you need to 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, which often are seen as a dusting on plants around the mushroom, also help identify the type of mushroom.

Here are just a few of the mushrooms that can be found along local trails if you look closely:

■ 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 amazing sizes. This prized, edible mushroom has a large cap (as many as 20 inches across) with a thick, somewhat bulbous stalk. The cap is a toasty, reddish-brown color. They are found among Engelmann spruce and other conifers as well as some hardwoods.

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

■ Looking a bit like coral found in the ocean, the bright orange Ramaria largentii usually is 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 on one of my hikes, I glanced over and saw the strangest-looking mushroom, the Clavaria purpurea. This one looks like a group of 5-inch tall purple worms all standing on end 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. Many of the ones I’ve seen are a very bright white, though as they age, the color darkens to light tan hues. This is an edible mushroom but closely resembles the poisonous Amanita buttons at their immature stage.

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 across 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.

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.

Deb Babcock is a volunteer master gardener through the CSU Extension Routt County. Call the CSU Cooperative Extension office at 970-879-0825 with questions.

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