As a child, I spent a large portion of my childhood hunting wild mushrooms, in the mountains surrounding our Durango, CO home. My grandparents, Mom, and uncles would spend whole days foraging deep in the undergrowth for these special treasures. So, today as we draw ever nearer to the start of the mushroom season I wanted to share with you, my 5 favorite edible mushrooms of Colorado.
But first, a word of caution. Harvesting and eating unidentified plants can be dangerous or even deadly and many plants have close cousins who are toxic. If you don’t believe me, just consider the tomato who is part of the deadly nightshade family. The information here is intended to be fun and educational, not necessarily instructional. It is absolutely crucial to be 100% sure that what you’re eating has been correctly identified and is safe to ingest.
Mushrooms of the Southwest
The areas most edible mushrooms grow can be hard to get to and will often require a lot of leg work to find. You won’t often find the elusively shy fungi out in the open sunshine they usually prefer densely wooded areas with plenty of decomposing deadfalls, leaves, and pine needles, (translate to uneven footing.) Mushrooms require very specific amounts of moisture and can be finicky about weather patterns. The key is moisture, so start your searches in mossy areas that have dense wild ferns.
Porcini (Boletus edulis, rubriceps)
Typical elevation - between 10,500′ and 11,200′
Porcini mushrooms can be found from mid to late July and into the end of August or September depending on weather patterns.
These mushrooms are considered a culinary delight by chefs worldwide they offer a nutty earthy flavor to any dish they are added to.
A note of caution, this mushroom has many varieties and look-alikes. True boletes will have pores under the cap rather than gills. Another good indicator is location, never gather these mushrooms if found growing near mixed conifer/aspen. Lastly, the most common look-alike, the aspen orange cap (Leccinum insigne), will immediately stain a brilliant telltale blue when cut, additionally, they will have black scabers on their stem.
Chanterelle (Cantharellus cibarius)
Typical elevation - between 10,500′ and 11,200′
Just like porcini’s, chanterelle mushrooms can be found from mid to late July and into the end of August or September weather pattern dependent, and they tend to live in similar habitats. Look for bright yellow/orange clusters near the moist, mossy edges and clearing of Colorado’s conifer forests. They are also fond of streams, fallen trees, and drainage areas. Distinguishable by their “gill-like” folds sometimes described as forked folds or wrinkles, these faux gills are one of their most telltale characteristics. Another culinary prize, these fungi have an apricot-like scent and offer a unique fruity flavor.
A cautionary note, the Jack o’lantern (Omphalotus illudens) is the chanterelle’s brilliant orange poisonous look-alike. It can most easily be distinguished by its true gills.
Morel Mushrooms (Morchella Esculenta)
Typical elevation - 8,000 feet and below
Depending on weather and even burn patterns, morels can be found as early as April or May and on into July or August. Morels are an elusive fungi, with three distinct varieties. Yellow Morels, Black Morels, and Burn Morels and each one has its own elevation and habitat preferences. Yellow morels will typically be found around 6,000’ earlier in the season, in riparian areas with dense cottonwoods and grass. Black morels can be found around 7,000’ later in the season in mixed conifer and aspen forests. A good time indicator is just as the Aspen leaves are sprouting out and small in size. Burn morels come out in June and July depending on forest fire activity and might go all the way into the early fall if conditions are right. According to Modern Forager, you should “focus on 1st and 2nd-year forest fires between 8000′ and 11000′ in mixed conifer forests.” The two most important features to help identify a morel mushroom are the cap shape and the hollow interior. The cap should be fairly uniform, ridged, and pitted inwards. After you examine the cap, slice the mushroom lengthwise. A true morel will be hollow inside from the tip of the cap to the bottom of the stem.
On a cautionary note, the false morel can be deadly, it is distinguishable by a wavier, “smooshed” looking cap and the inside is filled with cottony fibers instead of hallow.
Coral Mushrooms (Artomyces pyxidatus)
Typical elevation - above 9,000′
Found between June and September the exotic-looking coral mushroom is one of the most visually attractive wild mushrooms you can find and they can only be gotten as foraged fungi. These beautiful fungi are a soft white to yellow-tan, becoming a deeper shade or even pink-tinged as they age. Always tried to pick the whitest specimens as they darken with ages and become mushy. They tend to grow directly on deadfall and decomposing wood. A rare delicacy, the coral mushroom offers an earthy, mild, woodsy flavor with a slightly peppery aftertaste. You can find my grandmother's recipe for them here.
A cautionary note, while coral mushrooms are safe to eat cooked or raw they can occasionally gastrointestinal upset in some people. When trying them for the first time, eat them sparingly to see how your stomach reacts. Additionally, avoid any brightly colored red or purple mushrooms resembling corals as they are poisonous varieties.
Puffball (Lycoperdon perlatum, pyriforme)
Typical elevation - almost any!
Usually found in late summer to early fall you can consider them the tofu of the mushroom kingdom with a mild earthy flavor that lends well to many dishes. A common Colorado mushroom, it can be found in lawns and forests across the state and you should always keep an eye out for them while foraging for other species. Distinguishable easiest when cut in half, a true puffball will be firm and white all the way through and have no outlines of a “baby mushroom” or gills inside.
A cautionary note, Destroying Angels ( Amanita muscaria) can easily be mistaken for puffballs at certain stages of their life. As the name might imply this variety is deadly, it causes severe irreversible damage to the liver and kidneys if ingested. As far as cautionary tales go, let this serve as a reminder of why mushroom foraging should be done with care and caution and you should never under any circumstances ingest anything foraged that you are less than 100% certain of.
While these are just a few of my favorite edible mushrooms of Colorado, they certainly aren’t the only varieties out there. I chose them, particularly because they are the species I feel confident in my identification of them without a book or guide. But, remember the existence of mushrooms like the Destroying Angel and take a guide or a quality identification book like Mushrooms of the Rocky Mountain Region you can also find more information and some incredible resources at Modern Forager.
Until next time,