Following in The Footsteps of Sam Mitchell

Dr. Andrew Wilson, Assistant Curator of Mycology

This year Denver Botanic Gardens is celebrating the 50th Anniversary of its fungal herbarium, the largest collection of Rocky Mountain mushrooms and fleshy fungi in the North American continent. The herbarium is home to more than 18,000 mushrooms, puffballs and other fungi of many varieties and 80% are from Colorado. All this started by the simple passion of Dr. Duane “Sam” Mitchel, the namesake of the Sam Mitchel Herbarium of Fungi.

In celebration of the herbarium’s anniversary, Vera Evenson, curator of the Sam Mitchel Herbarium, and I decided to pay a visit to Sam’s former Ranch. The home he lived in is just south of Edwards, Colorado, where he made some of his first collections. Many of these now reside in the herbarium that bears his name.

With some direction from Sam’s son Kirk Mitchel, I contacted the realtors that sold the ranch and they introduced me to the current owners of the property. With the current

September 2017

owners’ permission, Vera and I took the trip on July 29 to see what we could find.

Driving through the valley on the way to Sam’s former Ranch, I could see what enchanted him so much about the area. Overlooked by New York Mountain and bordered by fir and aspen, the valley was lush and clearly a place where any mushroom enthusiast would enjoy spending time. This is

where Sam’s sons approached him with some mushrooms asking him what they were. The question motivated Sam so much that he ended up pursuing answers to the diversity of Colorado fungi for the next 25+ years.

While on the property, Vera and I visited what Kirk called “God’s half acre.” This name made sense given that the recent rains created such a lush and damp environment along a tree-lined creek. The place was practically heaven for mushrooms.

There was a lovely Pluteus. Wood decaying Stropharia were growing all over the place. I also found what I considered to be a charismatic LBM (little brown mushroom) that likely belongs to the Gymnopus/Marasmius group. And there was a beautiful polypore, Phellinus tremulae, growing on aspen.

Perhaps the find of the day was another LBM I found. After bringing it back to the herbarium, we were able to identify it as Tubaria confragosa. As luck would have it, our herbarium had only one other specimen of this. That specimen was collected in 1969 by Sam Mitchel on his

ranch. As a scientist, I don’t spend a lot of time pondering about mystical forces in the universe, but when something like this happens I’d be lying if said I didn’t enjoy thinking about it.

Because of this trip we were able to add several new collections to the Sam Mitchel Herbarium. The trip was very enlightening and I enjoyed the thought of walking through the same woods that Sam collected in nearly half a century ago. After all this time I think Sam would be happy to see what his little herbarium has turned into, and that his simple passion for studying mushrooms ended up becoming his legacy.

“I practice medicine to make a living and I study mushrooms to make living worthwhile.”
– Sam Mitchel

Our visit would not have been possible without the generosity of Bob Lentz and Bob Avis who were kind enough to allow us to roam their property, much like Sam did 50 years ago. Also, thanks to Pete Seibert and Deborah Wittman for facilitating contact with the current owners of the ranch.