Rain delayed Colorado mushroom season, but locals expect bumper crop

When Jon Sommer is selling real estate, his mantra is “location, location, location.” But when Sommer, who also serves as president of the Colorado Mycological Society, is looking for mushrooms, his mantra is “rain, rain, rain.”

The Front Range received more than its fair share of precipitation this year, accumulating near-record amounts of rain in May and June. While that led some to expect a prodigious year for hunting mushrooms in the mountains, Sommer said the season, which usually runs June through August, is off to a slow start thanks to cooler temperatures at altitude.

“Right now is the peak of the season typically, but we are about three to four weeks behind. We’re finding the diversity, but not the quantity of mushrooms,” Sommer said. “Typically we don’t get what we call ‘flush of summer mushrooms’ until the soil hits 60 degrees. That’s only happening now. We’re hoping that if moisture continues, particularly in the mountains, it will be a bumper year.”

Colorado Springs resident Teresa Schwinghamer recently camped out with the Pikes Peak Mycological Society for a foray and said the group didn’t collect much fungi compared to last year. Those mushrooms she did find – dozens of oyster mushrooms, milky caps, puffballs and more – also seemed more prone to bugs.

Still, weather patterns have Schwinghamer excitedly planning her next foray.

“I think what’s happening because of how late moisture has come in, everything is popping much later this season,” she said. “Check your honey holes a little later.”

Meanwhile, mycophiles on the Western Slope are praying for rain after an atypical dry spell in July. Mushrooms, edible or otherwise, are the fruiting bodies of mycelium, which often grows underground, and they require rain to sprout. Depending on the variety, mushrooms will pop up for a couple of hours to a couple of weeks following a storm.

That’s why, on a recent day when altocumulus clouds dumped some much-needed moisture in the Telluride area, Montrose resident Bri Taylor and her sons LT and Bradley, ages 5 and 3, jumped in the car and headed to the high country.

“Up at 10,500 feet, we found one itty bitty [mushroom],” Taylor said. “They’re out there but you have to know what you’re looking for and you have to be looking hard.”

But with the promise of August monsoons, she is hopeful the Western Slope won’t miss out on mushroom season. So, too, is Art Goodtimes, who helped organize the Telluride Mushroom Festival for its first 25 years.

Goodtimes has lived in the area since 1981 – long enough to witness climate change’s impact on weather patterns and, thus, mushroom season. The crop during the last two Telluride Mushroom Festivals, slated this year for Aug. 16-20, have been phenomenal – “You could fill a pickup truck and hardly make a dent in the edible mushrooms out there,” he said – but the rain has become increasingly variable during the summer, making the mushroom season less predictable.

“If we get a good soaking rain for a week, great. If it’s two or three days, we usually get a flush of mushrooms and they may dry out quickly,” Goodtimes said.

Tips for mushroom forays

Now through early September is an apt time to hit the trails in search of fungi. Coloradans who want to embark on their own mushroom hunt should consider doing so with a group at least until they feel comfortable identifying common types of fungi, our sources said.

Dozens of varieties thrive between 8,000 and 11,000 feet in elevation, Sommer said, and many are edible, like boletes, chanterelles, puffballs, morels and Hawk’s Wing mushrooms. However, others like the little brown galerinas can be toxic.

“LBM stands for little brown mushroom,” Goodtimes said. “Don’t pick little brown mushrooms.”

The Colorado Mycological Society hosts regular forays for its members this time of year – as do others throughout the state – during which the group fans out in forests to collect mushrooms to then analyze. Sommer always brings a two-burner stove in case someone finds edible fungi that can be cooked up onsite.

After rain is a promising time to go hunting, but local mycophiles should also consider the elevation. Later in the season, as the temperature gets warmer, Schwinghamer suggests climbing to higher elevations to find mushrooms.

It is possible to do an individual foray, meaning a trip seeking out mushrooms to analyze and discover. But those interested in doing a forage to collect edible mushrooms should go with someone knowledgeable who can verify the species of mushroom. Otherwise, mycophiles often post pictures of their finds in the Colorado Mycological Society’s Facebook group in hopes one of the 27,000 members can help identify them.

When harvesting mushrooms from their natural environment, Sommer suggests using a knife to cut at the base while being careful not to disturb the soil too much.

“As anything in life, balance is encouraged. Only take only what you’re going to eat. If you’re not eating them, pick one or two and leave the rest,” Taylor said. Another rule of thumb is to tap the cap of the mushroom to release spores in hopes they germinate and create more mushrooms in the future, she added.

Taylor also suggests bringing the whole family, as mushroom hunting allows kids to explore nature and interact with all the “alien-like” fungi out there. Her 5-year-old is so enthralled with the various mushrooms that the family has started an Instagram account called Fungi Rangers where he can showcase the interesting things he finds.

“They’re slimy, they have cool textures and gils. Some are tubes, some are sponges, and some of them are so hard you can stand on them on the side of a tree,” she said. “If you want to pick a few to explore by doing a spore print or cooking, the fun doesn’t end.”

While the 43rd annual Telluride Mushroom Festival is now sold out, Goodtimes said there are free ways for locals interested in learning more to participate. The festival sets up an identification tent in Elks Park throughout the weekend where anyone can bring fungi they’ve found. On Saturday, Aug. 19, there’s also a free costumed parade down Colorado Avenue at 4 p.m. that culminates in a dance party at Town Park.

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