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Steamboat Magazine

Notes from the underground: The secret life of fungi

07/01/2002 01:00AM ● By Anonymous

Summer 2002:

Notes from the underground: The secret life of fungi

   With names like red raspberry slime, witches‚ butter and stinky squid, what’s not to love about  mushrooms?    Summer thunderstorms mark the peak season for Colorado’s fungi, with mushrooms of every conceivable shape, color and size sprouting under trees and on rotting logs, or hiding in clumps of  grass and under pine cones and fallen leaves.     While peak-baggers and mountain bikers may curse the onslaught of the rainy season, Yampa Valley’s mushroom enthusiasts eagerly begin to scour the shady spruce forests around Rabbit Ears pass for delicious edibles.    The mountains and valleys around Steamboat Springs offer a wide variety of ideal mushroom  habitats, says Rob Reinsvold, president of the Colorado Mycological Society, a statewide group  that organizes mushroom- related events, including expert-led field excursions known as forays.      Thanks to the diversity of habitats, the area boasts an astounding number of species. An early  season foray last year, held during a relatively dry period, yielded about 50 different varieties of  fungi.      Colorado can’t compare to hot spots like Michigan or the Pacific Northwest in terms of pure  fungal abundance, Rob says. Due to the state’s radical up-and-down topograpy, many habitats aren  compressed into short horizontal distances.      Much of the action is up high, around Rabbit Ears Pass, for example, where prized edibles like  boletes and chanterelles thrive in cool, moist sub-alpine forests. Even the sun-dappled aspen glades on the drier slopes can harbor fungal treasures, and sharp-eyed mycophiles hunt for tasty  and elusive springtime morels in the cottonwood groves along the region’s rivers, lakes and  streams.      If the summer rains arrive on schedule, it’s hard to take a step in the woods without seeing at least a feof the distinctive buttons. But where do they come from? Why do they appear so  suddenly and profusely, only to vanish again a fedays or even just hours later?     Since the caps often appear shortly after a thunderstorm, the ancient Greeks thought they  sprouted where Zeus’ lightning bolts hit the ground. In the Middle Ages, the circular patterns formed by some mushroom species were called “fairy rings,” thought to be the work of magical elves.    Today we knothat fungi are about as down-to-earth as you can get. Together with bacteria,  they are responsible for processing much of the earth’s organic waste.    “They’re the recyclers of the natural world,” says Marilyn Shaof the Colorado Mycological  Society. “They clear the forest of dead wood. Without them, we’d be up to our eyeballs in dead  branches.”     Fungi are neither plants nor animals. Though rooted in place, they lack the chlorophyll that enables plants to convert sunlight to food. Instead, like animals, they depend on organic material for nutrition.     The caps and buttons visible above the ground are the fruiting bodies sprouting from the mycelium, a web of underground fibers that is sometimes visible as a cottony white mass on rotting  stumps. Under just the right combination of moisture and temperature, the caps pop up, quickly groto full size and subsequently release their spores to begin the cycle anew.     Some fungi evolved as an integral part of forest ecosystems by forming symbiotic relationships  with plants. Without them, the forest landscape as we knoit today wouldn’t exist.     The mycelium of these so-called mycorhizzal species intertwines with the root tips of trees and shrubs, sheathing them. In some cases, they even penetrate the cell walls of the roots, enabling an  exchange of nutrients.      The fungi increase the absorptive capability of the root system many-fold, passing minerals along to the plant and receiving sugars and carbohydrates in return. In some cases, fungal partners with anti-bacterial properties help shield plants from pathogens – penicillin, after all, is a fungal  mold.      To some folks, mushrooms are the equivalent of slugs – slimy, low-life, good-for nothing  squishables. To others, like Steamboat resident Bill Emerson, nothing is quite so delectable as a  slice of fresh forest fungus, sautéed in olive oil.     Bill says he concentrates on a fetypes of easily recognizable edible species, particularly king boletes and chanterelles.     Sighting the unmistakable smooth chestnut- brown caps of the king bolete will set any mushroom hunter’s heart aflutter. Also known as ceps, or porcini, they are among the most popular and widely collected edibles not only around the Yampa Valley, but across the Rockies and in the forests of Europe as well.     “The best areas around here seem to be up high,” Bill says, recalling a backpack trip in the Flat Tops last summer when he sagreat clumps growing along the trail.Can you imagine passing 50 or 100 as as dinner plates, with no way to harvest them, he says ruefully. “It was killing me!”      Another fairly common and deliciously edible species growing in this area is the orange chanterelle, a forest dweller carrying the fragrance of spiced apricot.    “People were bringing in bags of chanterelles from around Rabbit Ears last summer,” Bill says.    Finding and identifying mushrooms requires patience and persistence. The best way to learn is in the field with an experienced companion – especially if you plan to eat your find.     Starting out with the help of a knowledgeable and conscientious expert also helps foster a collecting ethic that emphasizes conservation of natural resources and habitat. Collectors have the responsibility to knothe regulations governing the harvest of forest products on public lands. Collecting mushrooms in Rocky Mountain Park, for example, is not allowed.     Of the hundreds of species in Colorado, only a feare desirable as edibles while another handful are deadly poisonous.     Mushroom poisoning is serious business. Several people get ill from mushroom poisoning in the United States each year. On average, there have been 1.5 mushroom-caused deaths annually in the past 100 years, according to Marilyn, the mushroom contact person for the Rocky Mountain Poison Center.     “Keep one of every kind that you eat, unwashed, uncut and uncooked, in a brown paper bag in the refrigerator,” Marilyn advises. A well-preserved specimen helps in identifying toxic species.      With a knowledgeable partner and a couple of good field guidebooks, even beginners soon learn to fill their baskets with edible forest morsels.