Collecting Wild Mushrooms
Tips on Harvesting Wild Food
Reading Time: 8 minutes
By Karin Deneke – Collecting wild mushrooms is a fascinating hobby rewarding us with tasty wild food. Nature’s bounty is endless. All it takes to harvest wild foods requires to be at the right place at the right time. Wild berries, herbs, grains, nuts, tubers, roots, and mushrooms are waiting for those who have the desire, knowledge, and skills to collect them.
When it is time for the fruiting of wild mushrooms, it is often guesswork when to exactly head for the woods or meadows to find these delicious morsels. Harvest time is often off by days or even weeks. Sometimes the window of opportunity is short, caused by a drastic change in the weather, sometimes the seasons last longer than others. Some years the harvest is plentiful, some years it is meager or nonexistent.
Important factors in coaxing these morsels from their hidden mass of mycelium are temperature and moisture. A swing in the weather from a dry spell to much needed precipitation, is a good indicator for mushroom fruiting. Like magic, they may suddenly pop out of the ground. Well, almost … you also have to take into consideration the time of the year. Therefore, most mushroom collectors will emphasize the need for test runs to their favorite mushroom hunting spots. Keeping a record of previous year’s first finds is always helpful.
There are different seasons for different fungi varieties. Starting, for instance, with the spring mushrooms such as the much-desired morels, which can be found east and west of the Mississippi. The two common varieties of the Rocky Mountain states are the dark pine-cone-resembling morels. They are usually found May through late June at elevations, give or take, between 8,000 to 9,000 feet in coniferous forests (often near ponderosa pines) and the yellow-capped morels which thrive in moist environments such as riparian areas, (often under cottonwoods) in late April to early May at much lower elevations.
In the eastern states, these cone-shaped, hollow morels are found often in deciduous forests near dead elm and ash trees. Ochreous-yellow in color, they vary in hues, shapes, and sizes.
Most mushrooms, in addition to moisture, need filtered light for their development. Old logging roads where mature timber has been harvested, allowing sunlight to penetrate to the forest floor, are prime places to look. These roads are often gated to prohibit vehicle access. However, they are excellent areas to hike into when searching for fungi.
A word of caution when collecting wild mushrooms: the mushroom kingdom is huge and can be confusing to the novice. My advice before you start out is to invest in a good mushroom guide. There are many mushroom guidebooks on the market, from short, illustrated, simple paperbacks to comprehensive hardbound guides. There are area-specific guides such as the Mushrooms of the Rocky Mountain Region and more general publications such as Simon & Schuster’s Guide to Mushrooms, Mushrooming without Fear, or Peterson’s A Field Guide to Mushrooms, just to mention a few.
Also, take part in a mushroom foray or two and you may want an experienced collector to accompany you. The latter may not be as easy as it sounds. It is common knowledge that most people are protective of their hunting grounds and would rather not divulge these locations.
Make sure you are foraging safely. As soon as mushroom hunters head for the woods, we hear of people getting lost, triggering costly, lengthy rescue efforts. When collecting wild mushrooms, my advice is to not hunt alone, stay in eyesight of your mushroom-hunting partner, and carry a whistle and a signal mirror, or if you own a compass or a GPS — USE IT! It is also a good idea before you start your hunt to learn if a permit is required.
Keep in mind that there are look-a-likes where one mushroom is perfectly safe to eat and the other deadly poisonous. Sometimes it is best to start collecting only one or two varieties.
Among the fall mushrooms, the meaty king boletes and the much smaller, low-to-the-ground, vase-shaped chanterelles are my favorite varieties to collect.
The king boletes usually pop up first. They are just like their name indicates, the king of all the bolete varieties. A few of these fist-sized or larger mushrooms with their bulbous thick stalks, if in perfect condition, can make a meal for two. Their reddish-brown caps often emerge from below an evergreen groundcover and have a Native American name — Kinnikinnick. This low-growing shrub is also known as bearberry, as its bright red fruit attracts bears in fall.
There are two choice bolete varieties: the brown-capped king bolete, and the pale yellow-capped bolete, referenced as the white bolete in mushroom guides. Both are found mostly under conifer stands in the Rocky Mountain states at an elevation between 9,000 to 12,000 feet. The brown-capped variety fruits from mid-July through September and the pale-yellow bolete a little earlier, late June through August.
Avoid the aspen orange cup, an early bolete often found under aspen trees. It is labeled edible, with caution because there have been reports of serious gastric complaints following ingestion. This bolete has a reddish-orange cap with red-brown to dark-brown tufts on the stalk. The flesh is solid white and is eventually staining purple.
When you search different mountain ranges in the Rockies, elevation makes a big difference in fungi fruiting. The higher the elevation, the later the season, unless you find yourself in certain microclimates or wind protected areas where slightly higher temperatures exist. I have been most successful in collecting the bright yellow chanterelles at an elevation of 11,000 feet or more. There have been seasons when their yellow clusters could easily be spotted along the edges of remote national forest roads. But don’t count on that as each season is different and it all depends on the magic formula of moisture and temperature.
The basic parts of a mushroom which help you with identification are from top to bottom, the cap with tubes or gills attached underneath, the stalk with or without a ring attached to the upper part, the bulb at the end of the stalk, and the mycelium below the surface.
All bolete varieties — and most are edible — have sponge-like tubes attached beneath their caps. These are most obvious when the mushroom matures from its so-called button stage to full size.
Gills are plate-like structures located below the caps of the majority of wild mushrooms. And that pertains to the majority of the mushrooms found in the Rocky Mountain regions — whether poisonous, questionable, or edible.
The bright golden chanterelle mushrooms with their gill-like ridges extending down their stalks, closely hug the ground with their short stalks barely visible. These fungi are much desired, but a pain to collect. Not only does it take a lot of bending, but also much cleaning on site, as forest litter likes to cling to them. But in the end, it is worth it as this little yellow jewel has excellent flavor and is one of the choice fungi of the Rocky Mountains.
Brushing off your mushrooms in the field is most helpful, instead of waiting until you return home, especially if you were lucky enough to fill your baskets. It can be a tedious, time-consuming job to remove all the small debris from your find before it is ready for the skillet or dehydrator. The more dirt you brush off at the site, the less overwhelming is the final cleaning. A small soft brush, in addition to a knife, should always be carried in your basket, and a basket with a flat bottom is best to carry your precious cargo to keep it from being crushed. I usually take along a few small lunch-sized paper bags, for what I call questionable fungi — fungi I plan to identify later on.
There are hundreds upon hundreds of wild mushrooms and their sub-species thriving in the Rocky Mountains. The Denver Botanic Gardens San Michel Herbarium of Fungi is a wonderful resource for mushroom enthusiasts. It earned the reputation as the largest mycological collection of the Southern Rocky Mountain region. Approximately 18,000 preserved specimens are housed here.
I advise novice mushroom collectors to stick with one or two edible species — species they can easily identify. I limit myself to no more than four fall mushroom varieties — the boletes and chanterelles, hawk’s wings, and sheep polypores.
Hawk’s wings with their light brown overlapping shingled/scaly tops, fruit between July and August, usually beneath conifers. They are covered with tiny spines underneath the cap. When young and fresh, they are mild-tasting, but watch out: as they age and turn darker, they become bitter. A few mature ones mixed in a batch of younger ones can ruin an entire meal.
Sheep polypores, with fleshy white caps, have tiny white-to-yellow tubes underneath. Their caps have interesting irregular shapes. This mild-tasting polypore is common in high-elevation Rocky Mountain regions during July to September. I occasionally find sheep polypores adjacent to my chanterelle spots.
I make sure that when I am collecting wild mushrooms that none of my edible treasures are wasted. Those not used for meals right away are subject for drying in a dehydrator. Drying mushrooms in a dehydrator is my preferred method of preservation. Friends of mine pack fresh mushrooms in olive-oil-filled glass jars. This works very well for smaller mushrooms such as chanterelles.
Sautéeing fresh or reconstituted wild mushrooms in butter or olive oil, along with finely chopped sweet onions or some garlic, is my favorite method of preparation. Toss these in scrambled eggs or omelettes, or use as topping on wild meats or steaks.
Most mushroom hunters have little knowledge of the nutritional value of their finds. Mushrooms contain a number of essential minerals. Latest studies tell us that the immune system enhancing actions of mushrooms are believed to assist the body in effectively attacking microbial invaders and developing tumors.
Earlier I suggested making test runs to check out the fruiting process in your special mushroom hunting areas. You may be driving long distances and return empty-handed more than once. No matter how many hours are spent on an unsuccessful search for the first fungi of the season, it is never a waste of time. Our beautiful forests with their flora and fauna, fresh air, and rushing streams are an experience that far outweighs the disappointment of returning home with an empty basket.
When you are collecting wild mushrooms, what are your favorite kinds to hunt for? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.
Originally published in Countryside May/June 2020 and regularly vetted for accuracy.