Think of mushroom foraging as hiking with purpose. “We get into these beautiful spaces, we hike miles and miles, and we’re on the hunt,” says Glenwood Springs–based forager Kristen Blizzard. “We get rewarded for it with these incredible, flavorful mushrooms.”
When it comes to finding the toadstools, Colorado’s Rocky Mountains are right up there with the Alps and the Himalayas as prime mushroom habitat. The fungi thrive at high elevations in cool, dense forests. They also mostly grow with living trees here in the Centennial State, so having healthy, thriving forests is critical.
But even if wild mushrooms abound in this state, how do you know which ones are safe to eat? And where can you find them? We asked two Colorado-based wild mushroom experts for their helpful pointers.
What Type of Mushrooms You’ll Find
Many different species of mushrooms grow throughout Colorado, but the most popular edible ones are porcinis and chanterelles, which grow during the summer months, from mid-July to the end of September. “If Colorado had a state mushroom, it would probably be the porcini,” says Blizzard, who co-wrote Wild Mushrooms: A Cookbook and Foraging Guide and runs the website Modern Forager with her husband, Trent. “Porcinis and chanterelles are known as choice edible mushrooms. Any chef would be thrilled to cook with either of those.”
Morels, which are harder to find and a real delicacy in the kitchen, grow in the spring. Oyster mushrooms are common, too, and those can even be collected during the winter months. Blizzard recommends focusing on one or two edible species and getting confident in your ability to spot them properly, instead of trying to identify all the mushrooms you’re seeing out there. “For beginners, learn to identify chanterelles and porcinis in the summer,” she says. “One of them is orange. The other one is prolific.”
How to Identify Mushrooms You Can Eat
The short answer is: There’s no easy way to identify edible mushrooms. But start by learning from others. Buy a few guidebooks, sign up for a guided foray, or take a course. The Modern Forager has a Colorado-centric online foraging course ($50) and the Pikes Peak Mycological Society posts video lectures on topics like foraging ethics and how to get started hunting mushrooms in Colorado.
“The recommendation is don’t eat anything you have not positively identified,” says Chris Ricci, a Durango-based wild mushroom expert who leads mushroom hunting tours in the San Juans through his guiding outfit, Fish and Fungi. “To get to know where a particular species is, how it grows, what its characteristics are, you have to learn them one by one. Once you learn one type of mushroom, you’ll be able to distinguish it from everything else.”
Ricci suggests three main guidebooks: Mushrooms and Other Fungi of North America, by Roger Phillips, Mushrooms Demystified, by David Arora, and the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms, by Gary Lincoff. None of those books are regional to Colorado, but Ricci says these titles have more species than the regional titles, a key to safer identification.
Meet up with Other Foragers
The Colorado Mycological Society gathers for regular meetings and events at the Denver Botanic Gardens and has guided forays into the high country. The Denver Botanic Gardens also keeps an extensive online database of more than 20,000 species of Colorado-grown mushrooms. You can even sign up for a foraging and cooking course with wild food expert Erica Davis, who teaches plant identification classes through Colorado Mountain College in Breckenridge.
Want to go for a deep dive in fungi? The Telluride Mushroom Festival takes place in August each year, as does the Eagle Mushroom and Wild Food Festival. And this year, the North American Mycological Association is hosting its major annual event at a ranch near Granby, Colorado, also in August.
Know Where to Look
In Colorado, mushrooms mainly appear in mixed conifer forest—spruce and fir—above a certain elevation, usually around 9,000 feet and above. “Mushrooms like to grow in and around openings in the forest, so look for areas that have a bit of sun and a bit of shade,” Blizzard says. “As a mushroom hunter, it’s a good idea to learn about trees and learn the relationships between specific trees and types of mushrooms. Lobster mushrooms, for example, grow with ponderosa pines, whereas morels tend to grow among cottonwood trees.”
You can look up maps showing morel sightings, but otherwise, nobody is going to give away a treasure map to where you should start your search. You’re on your own for that. If you’re collecting a certain amount of mushrooms, you may need a free permit with the U.S. Forest Service, so check with your local ranger before heading out, and remember never to collect mushrooms from private land without permission.
Hey, You Found a Mushroom! Now What?
Once you find a mushroom and have learned to properly identify it, use a knife to slice it off from the base of the stem or pull it gently from the ground. Mushrooms are the fruit of a fungus, known as mycelium, that grows underground or inside the tissue of living and dead plants. “Mushrooms are like an apple on a tree,” says Blizzard. “You’re not going to hurt the body of the mushroom itself, since it’s under the ground. So, pull it or cut it, it doesn’t really matter.”
Take only what you need and leave the rest. Try to clean the mushrooms as best you can in the field—you can blow or brush off the dirt or use a small knife to slice off the dirt, but don’t drench them in water because they will be difficult to dry out later. Store your mushrooms in an open basket or a breathable, mesh bag as you collect them; plastic bags restrict air flow and can lead to bacterial growth.
Once you have them home, keep your ’shrooms in the fridge—otherwise, cook or preserve them right away. You should also try a tiny taste first—some mushrooms don’t sit well with some people. “Give them a nice sauté, and they’ll go on everything: pizza, salad, pasta, soup, sandwiches, fried rice,” says Ricci. “Like anything, don’t overdo it. Even if you know they’re good to eat, know how much you need for you on that occasion.”
Pro Tip: Talk Like a Forager
Mushroom hunters tend to use Latin names for fungi, so get used to one mushroom having many different names. For example, a porcini can also be called by its Latin name Boletus edulis, or king bolete, or by its French name, cèpe.