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To the uninitiated, the mushrooming world can seem like a mysterious, obscure place where fungus, of all things, becomes a commodity pursued like the tiniest bits of gold panned from frigid mountain streams.
But true hobbyists and students of mycology, or the study of fungi, know that it is a pastime that turns dark, damp corners of the earth into treasure chests filled with fascinating and beautiful mushrooms just waiting to be discovered.
Mushrooming fanatics study and catalog different species, and the hunt for mushrooms in the Roaring Fork Valley is a hobby well-known by many local residents.
"My family did go out to find mushrooms a lot when I was really little - both to eat and to appreciate that there's so much diversity," said Jody Cardamone, a naturalist at the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies and longtime valley resident. "It's so much fun to see what's out there."
It is a quest that begins when the snow melts and ends when the flakes begin to fly. With a dog-eared copy of the Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms and a healthy dose of respect for the unknown, the forest becomes a virtual palette for mycological marvels.
At the heart of it, mushrooming is a pleasant hike through the woods, wandering off a marked trail to look carefully at the ground. On fallen trees, at the base of tall pines and sometimes buried among the pine needles mushrooms thrive, and their diversity is astonishing. Mushrooms go way beyond the typical simple stalk-and-cap variety you see packaged and presliced in the supermarket.
Some are flat - or stalkless - and grow in tiers on a mossy log. Puff balls, which emit their spores with the wind as they dry, can grow until they resemble volleyballs lying in the woods. One variety is shaped like wispy coral growing on the ocean floor.
Beneath their gills, some mushrooms reveal shades of pink and purple. Some don't have gills at all; they are smooth beneath their caps, or they have tiny flexible knobs called teeth.
The mushroom like those the cartoon Smurfs live in - with white stalks and brilliant red caps embossed with tiny white spots, the Amanita muscaria, is not edible.
If you can dream it, it probably exists in the mushroom realm - from the paper-thin fungi to mushrooms that smell like buttered popcorn.
With all these facets, it's no wonder people become obsessed with mushrooming.
Basalt resident Hilary Burgess keeps a detailed album of her fungal discoveries, with photos of each mushroom before and after she plucked it from the ground to dissect it. She details the environment where the mushroom was growing, and takes a spore print on both white and black paper, in case the spores are white.
On a recent foray into the woods near the Braille Trail on Independence Pass, Burgess was searching for Sarcodan imbricatum, but found Albatrellus ovinus instead. She identified it easily because of its coloring, its location under pine trees and its status as a polypore, meaning its spores come out of its pores rather than from gills.
And last weekend, 15 people took part in a three-day mushrooming class sponsored by the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies and led by Vera Stuckey Evenson, curator for the herbarium of fungi at the Denver Botanic Gardens. She has taught the annual course for more than 20 years and is extremely familiar with the fungi that thrives in Colorado's mountains. (The Denver Botanic Gardens' fungi collection includes about 22,000 species collected over 40 years. It's the largest, most diverse and well-documented collection in the Rocky Mountains, according to Evenson.)
In addition to the course, ACES hosted a mushroom fair. The public event featured all of the mushrooms Evenson's class had collected. Each small paper plate held a different species of mushroom, and there were 95 small plates on the tables.
Cardamone believes mushroom hunting in the Roaring Fork Valley became popular when physicists, many with European backgrounds, first came to the Aspen Center for Physics more than 50 years ago. Since mushroom hunting is a popular and a well-known pastime in Europe, physicists took to the hills knowing they'd eventually come across fungi worth uncovering.
To some, a good mushroom hunt is all about finding the edible species, and transferring the find from forest floor to plate. Preferably with butter.
"I remember the first time we really found mushrooms - it was at Lincoln Campground, at a good time when everything was fresh and amazing," said Stephen Kanipe, who has been mushrooming with his family for many years. "There were other mushroom hunters there, and they were walking around with these treasures in their hands. I looked at what they had and said, 'Gosh, I've seen 50 of those,' and they told me they were the best."
What Kanipe and his family had seen was Boletus edulis, the species Italian restaurants serve up as porcini mushrooms. And when a Boletus edulis, a morel or a chanterelle comes up in conversation with a true mushroom-seeker, its always labeled a "choice edible."
There are no real rules when it comes to mushroom hunting, although most fungi enthusiasts maintain a certain amount of secrecy over the best spots to find a prized mushroom. It seems everyone has their own secret stash, and nobody's talking.
And there is a stigma about eating wild mushrooms - that some wild mushrooms are poisonous, and that others will give you a psychedelic high.
"They're all edible, it just depends on how sick you want to get," Kanipe jokes, although it's mostly true. According to Everson, only one deadly mushroom grows in Colorado - Galerina autumnalis, a thin, small, dark brown mushroom that will kill you, even if you consume only a few; Colorado's other poisonous mushrooms will only make you sick. Psilocybe mushrooms - the ones that make you high - don't grow in Colorado, although it's rumored that some mushrooms will give you a high before making you feel sick.
Evenson theorizes that Americans' phobia about eating wild mushrooms stems from our English heritage.
"I think on England's wonderful little wooded islands, there were all sorts of mushrooms and when people showed up they began dying," she said. Thus, she postulates, people became mycophobic, or afraid to experiment with fungi.
Of course novice and experienced mushroom hunters know to double- and triple-check their findings before they delight in the little fungi they found thriving in the local forests.
"We found such great things," Kanipe said of Evenson's three-day class. "Sometimes we were so excited we could hardly breath, and everyone threw themselves down on their knees in the muck to look at what Vera had found."
A mushroom fair will be presented at the Denver Botanic Gardens this Sunday, Aug. 22. For more information, call the gardens at (720) 865-3500