Is overharvesting an issue as more people head into Southwest Colorado’s backcountry to collect an array of tasty mushrooms from the forest floor?
The short answer, surprisingly, is no.
“I feel like it is true: More people are out picking mushrooms,” said Gretchen Fitzgerald, a forester with the U.S. Forest Service. “But I don’t worry too much about it.”
The reason, Fitzgerald said, lies in the way mushrooms grow.
The actual growing body of a mushroom is a fungus called mycelium, which lies beneath the soil. The mushrooms are essentially the flower or fruit of the mycelium.
Fitzgerald said to think of it in terms of an apple tree: The mycelium is the tree and root system, and the mushroom is the apple you pick.
As a result, because a person is not typically damaging the mycelium – the system that continues to produce the mushrooms – when out on a mushroom hunt, there’s no overriding concern as the hobby picks up in popularity.
In fact, people out mushroom hunting can help the fungus spread.
Mushrooms reproduce through what’s known as spores, tiny cells that allow fungus to replicate and reproduce. Back to the apple tree analogy: Spores are like a mycelium’s seeds. And when spores land on suitable ground, it’s the first step to kick off the mycelium and mushrooms network.
Chris Ricci, a wild mushroom expert who guides hunts in the region through his company, Majesty Mushrooms, said people who pick mushrooms spread spores around the forest floor, sometimes more than would naturally occur.
Spores can latch onto clothes, then fall off in other parts of the forest. When people lift mushrooms off the ground, spores can be taken by the wind. And, when people discard older mushrooms that are not edible, spores are also dispersed.
“Mushrooms are the spore factory and the humans are like the truckers,” Ricci said.
Overharvesting issues surrounding mushrooms have sprouted up in other places, like in the Pacific Northwest, where the practice is far more popular and common, or in China, where throngs of people flock to gather a specific mushroom and decimate a population.
But in Southwest Colorado, the scale and scope of the practice just isn’t on the level where there’s any risk to the mycelium.
“It can be damaged, but it’s mostly untouchable, and it works in mysterious ways,” Ricci said. “There’s a lot more people out there, but there’s still a lot of forest out there. Certain places have a lot of traffic, others not so much.”
Fitzgerald, a few years ago, drafted a list of best practices when mushroom hunting, like using a mesh bag or basket so spores can more easily spread, not using rakes or machinery that would disrupt the soil, cutting off mushrooms instead of pulling them up and not taking all the mushrooms in an area.
“Pick what you need and leave some for the next person,” she said.
People are becoming more comfortable identifying edible mushrooms, Fitzgerald said, likely resulting in more collectors as the stigma of poisonous fungus wears away. Collecting season usually extends from late spring to early fall, depending on the species.
Southwest Colorado has many edible and tasty species, she said, including chanterelles, boletes, hawk’s wings and puff balls. But there are also many poisonous ones, too, including the death angel and the deadly galerina, and extreme caution and know-how must be exercised if you plan to eat what you pick.
The ecological benefits of mushrooms vary from species to species, but their overall importance to the natural world is without question, said Katrina Blair, founder of Turtle Lake Refuge.
“They’re so important, creating nourishment for plants and regenerating the soil,” she said.
Out by Turtle Lake, Blair and others are using a certain type of mushroom to help remediate a patch of land that had been treated by herbicides and fertilizers with chemicals in it. And Blair, who makes a trek from Durango to Telluride, eating only what she can forage, said mushrooms are typically on the menu.
“They’re in every course, just about,” she said.