It’s late August during a dry, hot summer. The season is waning and sudden rains have pelted the mountains. As any mushroom hunter knows, this is the time to ferret out wild mushrooms. So on this sultry day, enthusiasts from the Colorado Mycological Society have gathered on the road to Mount Evans near Echo Lake.
At a roadside picnic table we’re unloading the unmistakable implements of mushroom gathering: wicker basket with a flat bottom, clean cloth in the bottom of the basket, wax paper bags, sharp knife, mushroom identifying book. We are not out to find only edible mushrooms but are on task to gather a variety of stunning fruit to display. This road will provide enough to indicate just how varied and beautiful our Colorado mushrooms can be.
The French adore chanterelles. The Italians savor porcinis. The Japanese crave matsutakes. Truffles, which are underground mushrooms, cost plenty. Mushrooms are ancient food but still mysterious. Were you to question chefs or hikers, their mushroom knowledge might be thin and scanty. Mushrooms are unlike any other food. They’re not even a plant. Mushrooms are fungi. And that has everyone on guard.
Many carry fanciful names: lawyer’s wig or fairy’s fingers, plums and custard or velvet foot. Wild mushrooms not only are a puzzle, with lore that evokes hobbits and forest creatures, but also arouse a sense of the deadly. Most are not deadly. But many will make you so sick that one mycologist says, “You’ll only wish you could die.” Evidently, through a kind of ancient wisdom, we all are born with a reverence for these forest fruits. Unless you know exactly what you are eating, they are best left to themselves. Scientists warn us that all mushrooms contain some toxins and should be cooked before eating. Heating nullifies many of the noxious chemicals—a knowledge that our ancestors understood and abided.
There’s bit more to mushroom existence than only our cuisines. What we see above ground is the fruit of fungi. An elegant and elaborate network of fungi underground calledmycelium reacts when conditions are right to send fruit above soil’s surface. What we see are stalks of fungus that provide spores to reproduce. In the shade of the mushroom cap, a tiny umbrella sometimes with gills, spores will be released that pepper the forest floor. In a dry and dusty summer with little moisture, these fruits might never appear. But now that late summer rains have drenched the mountains, mushrooms abound. Even so, only devoted hunters see what’s at our feet. It may be only a slight bulge covered by pine needle debris, a golden nub or a white speck. Seasoned collectors zoom in on what most of us pass by. In no time, we’ve filled baskets with stunning fungi and return to the picnic table to reveal a bounty.
We’re not here to find edibles, although one person has discovered a chanterelle and another a coveted oyster mushroom. But these will go on display, along with all others once a year when mushrooms lovers meet to identify and talk about local mushrooms. Some like to identify mushrooms with their collective knowledge, although a spore print or a close look under a microscope may be necessary. Others are exacting chefs who desire a particular unusual edible: the hawk’s wing or white king bolete, oyster mushroom or white matsutake. In the spring, a few may chance upon the blond morel.
Some of us care only to photograph mushrooms, seeking out not those of choice cuisine, but the most elaborate or jewel like–something like the Amanita muscaria, the hallucinogenic mushroom that results in more trips to hospital emergency rooms than any other mushroom. It’s commonly labeled fly agaric and the mature cap is unmistakable: bright red with white or silver spots. Like a bright light, it glows from the forest floor.
Despite the dangers associated with naïve mushroom tasting, fungi are friends. Penicillin is derived from fungi. So are the yeasts for breads, wines and beers. In a relationship with algae they form lichens. Fungi recycle the organic waste of the world; you can observe them at work on the trunk of a dead tree. But some mushrooms perform an essential act that we do not see and rarely appreciate. They take raw nutrients from the soil and transform them into useable sugars for the roots of many trees, both conifers and broad-leaved. It now appears that most plants live in concert with some fungi in order to have access to basic elements. Some plants require a particular fungus; others will draw from a vast assortment. That’s why a knowledgeable mycologist knows to find certain mushrooms under certain trees at a particular time of the year.
Mushrooms are everywhere, more or less. They’re in your lawn or log pile. You can find many in cemeteries and city parks. Riverbanks, grasses and even the edges of tundra will have mushrooms. But the majority of extraordinary mushrooms pop up on forest floors, in montane and subalpine elevations, companions to pines, spruce and aspen. The more varied the forest, the greater the banquet. And while mycologists have their own privately mapped destinations to gather a favorite fungus, for most of us it’s more useful to pay attention to the ground. Mushrooms often appear alongside a popular trail.
Their fruiting will be brief, perhaps only a day or two. And, once picked, wild mushrooms quickly decompose, turning into nutrients that enrich the forest floor. That’s why not one of us has arrived with plastic bags—a death knell for a fragile fungus. We stand them on end in our baskets, each encased in an open waxed paper bag. We’ve passed over spent or immature mushrooms, which make identification more difficult. And some carry small mesh bags intended to allow the spores to fall from the mushroom caps. Perhaps swinging the small bags contributes to future mushrooms by sprinkling the spores onto the forest floor.
Once you begin to group mushrooms into cup fungi or teeth fungi, puffballs or bird’s nest fungi—all major key groups–a mushroom will stop you in your tracks. You’ll recognize which trees it’s connect to, or what role it plays in the forest. No longer will a mushroom rise without any context to its existence. The lowly mushroom that once looked scary or weird tells you that growing conditions are excellent for the fungus and its forest friends.
Lory State Park, west of Fort Collins, usually draws bird lovers or wildflower enthusiasts. But on a wet summer day, the lichens–arrayed in orange, gold, yellow, green, gray and brown, boldly splashed against black rock–distract from the more dainty blossoms.
Nestled against the foothills, Lory once was an old ranch that now surrounds and protects Horsetooth Reservoir. Touted as a wildflower haven, Well Gulch Trail follows a narrow creek. Rock walls line the canyon anchoring the tapestries of mosses, ferns and lichens.
A volunteer strolls along a popular trail leading a group of schoolchildren: “I’ve become aware of lichens growing along Well Gulch–that is our area of metamorphic rock. The temperature and the light and pH factor must be suitable. The lichen species are doing well this year; I have attributed that to the rainfall,” she says.
Lichens may appear more colorful after a rain, but many withstand intense periods of drought. Homeowners who mist lichen-covered rocks in their gardens should leave them alone, botanists say. They have adapted over millions of years to both deluge and drought.
Over 13,000 species exist around the world. Recent research now challenges a few age-old beliefs. While naturalists consider them to be essential to establishing plant life by dissolving rock into soil over hundreds or thousands of years, even this assumption is under scrutiny. Wind and water erosion, with earth shattering powers, eclipse any amount of soil produced by lichens. But one fact stands out as indisputable. In recent times, dying lichens have been linked to air pollution because lichens take nutrients from air and rainfall. If either is laced heavily with toxic chemicals, the lichens will diminish. But if left alone in a healthy environment, some will live for a thousand years or more. Lichens are susceptible to sulfur dioxide, the by-product of burning fossil fuels. The discovery that lichens are sensitive to air pollution dates to the 19th century in England, when scientists noticed a relationship between the decline of lichens and the rise of industrial pollution.
Classroom teachers often explain that fungi and algae form a partnership to benefit each other. Algae provide chlorophyll and the fungi provide cover or minerals. Without each other, they might not survive. But as a twosome, they prevail. The relationship is more complex though, with many scientists describing the fungus as a kind of parasite, living only with the help of the alga and controlling how and where both grow.
Colorado landscape differs in altitude, humidity, aridity, rock types, sun exposure and soil components–all because of our numerous microclimates. Landscape that fosters a variety in butterflies and wildflowers will foster lichen varieties, too, about 600 in Colorado alone. Lory is one example of sudden shifts in altitude, humidity and rock types. While the state park contains lichens nestled among the foothills, other Colorado lichens exist in the alpine tundra and on desert floors.
Botanists scrutinize algae and fungi combinations because the same kinds of lichens can be found all over the world. This has prompted scientists to study lichens as indicators of ancient history, long before continental drifts. A thorough study of Colorado lichens and more developed plants reveals many are identical to those found in middle Asia and Siberia. Our Rocky Mountain alpine lichens are older than current day Arctic lichens and suggest that we are hiking among relics of a prehistoric natural world that once fostered Asiatic and North American links.
Lory State Park is a foothills gem, partly because of the four ecosystems in the park that knit together a small area: montane, grassland, riparian and shrubs. Cottonwood trees (Populus deltoids) and willows (Salix sp.) sink roots into the damp slopes around the reservoir. Mountain mahogany(Cercocarpus montanus), chokecherry (Prunus (Padus) virginiana) and wild plum trees (Prunus americana) shelter tiny birds alongside the river trails. Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) forests rise from the river trails leading to the trail of ponderosa pines (Pinus ponderosa), which is drier with a cushion of pine needles underfoot.
But the lichens are most vivid along the river trails, where rock walls studded with hanging plants, mosses tucked into crevices and ledges of blooming evening-primroses (Oenothera caespitosa) provide a botanical cathedral. Horsetails (Equisetum sp.), a hollow, primitive, reedy plant, line the trail alongside mountain mahogany. The Well Gulch stream is fed both by snowfall and a spring, which original homesteaders once relied upon for a dependable water supply.
Midway along the trail, lichens change from golden to chartreuse, gray to white. Lichens cover rocky ledges, nearly every inch of rock bearing a fuzzy or furry appearance. Just inside some rock shelves the lichens change to white or gray with scalloped edges, like rudimentary plants designed for science fiction. Some are reminded of coral reefs, where the plant life appears alien, but rugged and suited perfectly to an exacting location.
Lichens fall into three broad categories such as the colorful green and chartreuse that make up the foliose, or leaf-like lichen category. Crustose, is typical of the crusty gray lichens so prevalent in Colorado. Other lichens fall into the category of fruticosa, where the lichen forms a kind of arching pendant.
Many lichens contain antibiotic properties and some have been used as food by insects, animals and people. But lichens have escaped the culinary fervor found among mushroom gatherers. There’s no worry that adventurous cooks will scrape the walls clean for a fruticosa salad. Lichens arrived very early in the world’s primitive botanical history and have survived climate changes, the nibbling of herbivores and insects, and the curiosity of most humans. Modest by botanical standards, lichens rarely wow a crowd–until you discover some remarkable specimens.
Echo Lake and Chicago Lake, Mt Evans Wilderness
Directions: From Idaho Springs (I-70) take exit 240 and proceed south on Colorado 103 for 12.5 miles. The turnoff is located at 39.6606N, 105.6050W. Park at Echo Lake Park, ¼ mile off Colorado 103. Echo Lake Park is on the western edge of Echo Lake and has access to the Chicago Lakes trails.
Features: You don’t have to hike far. This is perfect mushroom habitat and with sharp eyes, you’ll spot them within a few hundred feet. Keep your eyes off trail for the easy 1 mile to the Idaho Springs Reservoir.
- US Forest Service, Clear Creek Ranger District, PO Box 3307, Idaho Springs, CO 80452, 303-567-3000, http://www.fs.fed.us/r2/arnf/recreation/trails/ccrd/chicagolakes.shtml.
- Herbarium at the University of Colorado Museum, Boulder,http://cumuseum.colorado.edu/Research/Botany.
- Colorado State University Herbarium, Fort Collins, http://herbarium.biology.colostate.edu.
Lory State Park
Directions: From Fort Collins, take US 287 north to County Road 54G (old US 287) and follow it to LaPorte. Continue through the town for 1 mile and turn left onto County Road 52E (Rist Canyon Road). At Bellvue, turn left at County Road 23N, go 1.4 miles and take a right on County Road 25G. Park entrance is another 1.6 miles. Pick up a trail map at the visitor center which is just a short distance inside the park, at 40.5906N, 105.1841W.
Features: My favorite lichen trail is Lory’s Well Gulch Nature Trail, an easy 1.5-mile loop that follows a seasonal drainage. Highlights are the riparian flowers and lichens. Pets permitted, on leash.
- Lory State Park, 708 Lodgepole Dr, Bellvue, CO 80512, 970-493-1623,http://parks.state.co.us/Parks/Lory.
- Lory State Park abuts Larimer County’s Horsetooth Mountain Park which has 29 additional miles of trails. Contact Larimer Parks and Open Lands Department, 1800 South County Road 31, Loveland, CO 80537, 970-679-4570, http://co.larimer.co.us/parks/brochure_htmp.pdf.
- New York Botanic Garden, http://www.nybg.org/bsci/lichens.