2006: A Banner Year for Rocky Mountain Mushrooms

By Debbie Viess

Reprinted with permission from “Mushroom, The Journal of Wild Mushrooming”, Winter 2007, pp. 17-19.
Ms. Viessʼ essay originally appeared Aug. 26-29, 2006, on the BAMS online discussion group, bayareamushrooms@yahoogroups.com.

Last week, David and I acquainted ourselves with the wo/men and mushrooms of Colorado, and what a pleasure it was. As foretold, the fungal growth in CO was explosive. Acres of red-capped edulis and muscaria marched up the mountain sides, and pines burst with chanterelles. A vast display of fungal diversity greeted our eager eyes at nearly every stop. Our trip began at the Denver herbarium, where we met with Vera Evenson, mycologist extraordinaire and author of the wonderful field guide, “Mushrooms of Colorado.” She was kind enough to spend two hours talking with us about CO mushrooms. She provided us with access to the herbariumʼs impressive collection of voucher specimens, where I was able to let my fingers do the walking through decades of rare amanita collections. She told us exactly how to get to a number of local CO collection sites, and she was an invaluable resource. Armed with maps and eager for discovery, David and I set forth into the beautiful and dramatic Colorado landscape.

At the local, well-watered and frequently mowed lawn at Kettring Park in Littleton (a suburb of Denver), we looked for fresh examples of Amanita prairiicola, a rare and unusual non-mycorrhizal amanita. Several collections had been made in prior years at this site, but perhaps the mowers beat us to the punch? After a pleasant interlude with an old friend from Chicago, now living in Littleton, we set off to the “Crested Butte Mushroom and Jazz Festival.” Over the passes and fields, through forests and across rocky, cattle-dotted meadows, mushrooms and spectacular wildflowers were everywhere. Our collections were only limited by our imaginations and the capacity of our baskets/bags/arms.

Our first stop was Kenosha Pass, a moist and verdant paradise of Engleman spruce, pine and aspen. Scattered across the ground was a pro-
fusion of colorful wildflowers. Beautiful blue gentians marked the path. Colorful fungi littered the ground as far as the eye could see. Right off, I discovered a fulva-esque amanita, a type of edible, tawny grisette. Fairy rings of clitocybes lined the forest floor. Boletes, colorful suillus, and orange and red-capped leccinum poked their pore-bearing caps up out of the rich duff. I have never seen so many large, edible agaricus species in one place. Big, pristine, pure-white Agaricus silvicola gleamed, their voluminous and delicate skirts dragging to mid-stipe, smelling sweetly, and turning yellow at a touch. Golden brown capped, shaggy stalked, almondy Agaricus augustus were emerging in troops from the thick pine duff. A rainbow of russulas, in a spectrum new to me, popped up across the varied landscape. Some were edible, some were beautiful, and some were just new and strange. I tasted ev- ery one, and did spore prints on the most intriguing, and still mostly couldnʼt key the damn things out. The dark-centered Amanita pantherina var. multisquamosa was abundant under the trees and throughout the grasses. Brilliant orange waxy caps formed an attractive grouping, and lactarius wept copious latex tears. It was a freakinʼ fungal fairyland, and our trip had just begun. The second stop of our journey from Denver to Crested Butte was at Monarch Pass. This area is loaded with Engleman spruce and other conifers, and Engleman spruce is the preferred host of the local, red-capped Boletus edulis. Right away we spotted an abundance of Amanita muscaria, in all stages of growth, tumbling down the slopes. These were thrilling enough, but their companion mushrooms, and our primary quarry, were conspicuous by their absence; could we have arrived too late?

Clambering up through the trees, and fighting the thin air, we viewed many fine fruitings: handsome, rosy-hued Hygrophorus including purpurescens and erubescens, hawks wings Sarcodon imbricatum, even an awesome patch of purple fairy fingers Clavaria pupurea. But even with all of this abundance, something was missing. Where was the edulis? Higher and higher I climbed, racing against the clock (after all, we were merely at the first leg of our trip, and we had miles to go before we slept). Fairy rings of muscaria led me ever higher until, at long last, my eye was caught by a half-hidden, robust, red-capped fungus. Edulis! The Colorado version may have a different cap color, but they otherwise look and taste about the same as our California version, which is to say, beautiful and delicious.

I continued to let the amanitas guide me, and I soon filled my arms with fat boletes (we were meeting up with our hosts and loaner baskets in Crested Butte, and all that I had for collecting was a specimen-filled plastic bag). I was late to meet up with David, and afraid that Iʼd drop my arm load of boletes as I made my way back down the steep slope. I called out for help. When I finally found David, and asked him to take some of my boletes, he laughed and gestured behind him. There was a slope covered in perfect porcini, far too many for either of us to carry.

What to do with all of that edible, fungal abundance when youʼre on the road? Our collapsible, three tiered, blue-mesh Chinese dryer came with
us, for just such an emergency. That night, back in our motel room, David sliced porcini, and laid them out to dry. During the day, we hung the dryer in the back seat of the car, utilizing the “greenhouse effect”. Between these tricks, and our new, Colorado friend Bernie Sewardʼs hot air
dryer, we managed to fill a number of zip-locks, and eventually, once back home, a tall glass jar. With our edibles safely out of the way, we could now concentrate on collecting and identifying specimens — my real reason for collecting in Colorado.

Mushroom diversity did not disappoint. The soon to be green, orange-capped Lactarius deliciosus was abundant throughout the forest. A new to me variety of deliciousus, with a cracked and raised cap (reminiscent of Agaricus crocodilinus), was fruiting in a sunlit field, next to yet another, unidentified species of agaricus. I was very surprised when I dug the “crocodilinus” up and it bled orange latex! Enormous fruitings of Albatrellus species covered the ground, primarily ovinus and confluens. Folks at the mushroom festival emphasized that ovinus was edible, but goodness, why eat albatrellus when the woods are full of porcini and chanterelles??!

The collecting around Crested Butte during the next several days was equally impressive. Aspen groves yielded forth an unusual and fairly recently described species of grisette, Amanita populiphila. Like most grisettes, this species is edible, but no amanita should be eaten by a beginner; the populiphila bore an uncomfortable resemblance to the bleached-out, poisonous Amanita pantherina
found nearby. The conifer habitat was even more productive. It was impossible to bend down and collect a mushroom without seeing several more species nearby, and not just the ubiquitous “little-brown-jobbers” and fat cortinarii. Red-capped russula, that I assumed were an acrid form (and so passed by), turned out to be one of the many color morphs of the edible and delicious Russula xerampelina (its “shrimpy” smell clinched the ID for its lucky collectors). Edible green-capped russulas punctuated the pines, as did russulas of brilliant yellow and bright cinnamon brown. There were many fruitings of the handsome, apricot-pink waxy-cap, Hygrophorus pudorinus. In fact, at least a half dozen different species of hygrophorus were collected, much to the delight of me and my fellow IDer, Rob Hallock, from the Colorado Mycological Society. These days, I am intrigued by both the many hygrophorus species and, god help me, russulas. I fear my passion for mushrooms has become a hopeless state, regardless of the state that Iʼm in. A couple of hours collecting in conditions likethese fairly flew by, and it was always with regret that I left the field. Although I did not have the pleasure of finding them myself, a number of folks collected the beautiful and unusual grisette,
Amanita ceciliae, a large, dark-capped form, with a gray universal veil and an abbreviated volval cup. Like somebody elseʼs trophy trout, I did
have my photo taken with it, though. It was with a tremendous sense of satisfaction that I finally found a field of fat, white puffballs. As we drove from Denver towards Crested Butte, thru the high prairies of Colorado (with their sadly remnant populations of prairie dogs), we kept thinking that we saw puffballs. But either there was no place to pull off the road safely, or our “phantom puffballs” turned out to be white rocks. Just outside of Crested Butte, after one of our magical group forays, I was using my binoculars to glass a hawk perched along a grassy field. I found the “rocks” in the foreground to be suspiciously rounded, and gleamingly white. Dashing down the slope to check them out, I missed seeing the very last patch of open water in the surrounding boggy, berry patch, and down I went. Dripping with bovine-accented mud, I continued, undeterred, on to my prize: a field of Calvatia booniana. Another family had followed me down, and, young and middle-aged, we filled our arms with these very heavy fungi (it only took one!). The friendly fungal family piled their haul into my arms, for yet another fungal photo op (sadly, in the excitement, David forgot to change the settings of the camera, so the picture is blurry. But there is no mistaking the species of this huge mushroom, or my huge grin of delight!).

The very best mushroom of the trip was discovered at our next to last stop. Peter Werner, who has been working on the Strophariaceae at SFSU, first told me about the rare and unusual Amanita nivalis, a small amanita found above tree-line, growing in association with dwarf willow. Originally described from Europe, Vera Evenson told us where to look for it at the Continental Divide,and our mushroomerʼs luck held. Three years to the day where the late Orson Miller collected this species, in a miniature and magical habitat, David located our rare amanita. Another member of the vaginata group (like grisettes, coccora and velosa), this handsome amanita was poking up out of the dried grass and lichens, at the edge of the dwarf willow copse. What a thrill to find it. I hardly noticed the thin air, at elevations of close to 13,000ʼ. Amanita nivalis ranges in
color from pure white to pale buff, slightly darker at the center of the cap, and with a pronounced umbo, long striations (practically half the length of the cap) and a pinched and flaring volva sac. Its flavor was sweet, if a mite sandy; the triumph of locating it, sweeter still. There were a number of other, single species growing in that extreme habitat, from tiny puffballs to fat cortinarius, to a lovely fruiting of clitocybe in a bed of lichens and tiny plants. These were all dutifully photographed and collected, and deposited the next day at the Denver herbarium. Our very last stop before we returned to Denver was at a pullout just past the Eisenhower tunnel, along Hwy 70. A flowing creek, wildflowers, and a procession of Engleman spruce, as well as other conifers, made it an aesthetic as well as “mushroomy” stop. Again, muscaria fruited everywhere, and there was a smattering of Colorado porcini, including a monster that would havemade a nice armrest. Tall grass along the dirt road hid major fruitings of Pholiota squammosa, and yet more of the ubiquitous albatrellus, fruiting by the megaton. Clitocybes were also in abundance, including fairy rings of the huge, funnel-capped Clitocybe gibba.

What drama! What pleasure! What a great trip.