BAILEY — Jon Sommer is standing in the shade of a spruce forest holding a white mushroom with a golden-yellow cap to his nose. He smells it. Not like a sniff, more like he nearly shoves it up a nostril and inhales audibly.
To most, the mushroom smells like, well, a mushroom. Or maybe the earth from which it’s just been plucked, because it still has dirt on it.
But not to Sommer, leader of a group of more than 1,000 Colorado fungi-seekers who meet for weekend mushroom forays and travel to fungi festivals around the state. They are the Colorado Mycological Society, meaning they study fungi, and their club is connected to the Denver Botanic Gardens.
To Sommer, the mushroom in his palm smells like almonds.
It’s an Agaricus didymus, he says, a delicious relative of the cremini mushrooms sold in grocery stores.
“These are lovely to eat,” says Sommer, before launching into a detailed, scientific explanation of how this genus of mushroom grows in a symbiotic relationship with spruce needles. “People just want to know, ‘Can I eat it?’ But I want people to understand the whole biology, their role in the ecosystem and all of that stuff.”
He and his fellow fungi experts and experts-in-training, who recently met at a trailhead of the Mount Evans Wilderness carrying baskets and backpacks with special mushroom separators, are so obsessed with mushrooms they could talk about them for hours. Here’s one reason: In the Rocky Mountain region, there are an estimated 5,000 species of mushrooms, which are the fruit — the blooming part — of fungi.
“They are symbiotic with the roots of the trees,” said Sommer, who gives weeknight training sessions in Denver before leading people into the forest. “We call that whole relationship mycorrhiza — mycro meaning fungus and risa meaning root. Ninety-five percent of all land plants have mycorrhizae in nature. And they can’t live without the fungus. A cubic inch of forest soil could have 5 miles of fungal cells. In one cubic inch!”
Some fungi are connected with spruce trees, some with aspens, feeding off the trees that in exchange get phosphorus and nitrogen from the fungi. Others are connected to other mushrooms or decomposing bodies. Or poop.
The foray group, which numbered about 10, left the forest with dozens of varieties of mushrooms — most to display at a botanic gardens mushroom fair and a few to saute in butter for dinner.
The hobby is increasing in popularity in Colorado, in part because the pandemic sent more people outside but also because last year was the best mushroom year in the Rocky Mountains in at least 30 years, which is as long as Sommer has been hunting Colorado shrooms.
The monsoons of 2021 created an epic mushroom season, which hits its prime in August. It was so good that Sommer keeps having to remind people who got hooked on foraging last year that 2021 was an anomaly.
Taste, don’t eat
This season is still great, thanks to late-summer rain, but it doesn’t compare to last year.
No matter to Tim Jansen and his wife, Alicia Torres, who used to spend weekends panning for gold but are now addicted to learning about mushrooms. The Denver residents have been joining forays, watching YouTube videos and reading about fungi for the last year or so — ever since accidentally finding their first valuable mushroom, an elusive morel. The meaty mushroom, which is said to taste like nuts, pushes out of the sooty earth after wildfires and is selling for $35 a pound this year.
“I was panning for gold and my wife found a morel behind us that was worth more than any of the gold I’ve found in the time I’ve been here,” said Jansen, who works in the technology division of a marketing firm.
Torres has a particular knack for spying mushrooms in the woods, noticing even a tiny disruption in the pine needles or an uneven leaf, then brushing the forest floor aside to expose mushroom caps. Torres once found a rare truffle near Guanella Pass that they were told was worth about $1,000 per pound. Torres and Jansen are not experts yet, but they both know a ton about fungus.
“I will literally taste any mushroom in the forest without being scared of it,” Jansen said. “I was afraid to smell them before. I didn’t know.”
Important note: He said taste, not swallow.
Some are spicy like a hot pepper. Some are bitter. One supposedly tastes like tutti-frutti, a sweet and savory mix of fruits and nuts.
There’s not a mushroom in the wilds of Colorado that would seriously harm a person who smells or tastes it and spits it out, but there are quite a few that will bring about serious gastrointestinal issues if swallowed, according to mycological society foragers with lived experience. “False morels,” which look like the prized edible mushrooms, are hazardous to those who can’t tell the difference.
Mushroom foraging is fascinating, Jansen said, because there is so much still undiscovered about fungi. Of millions of types of fungi in the world, only about 100,000 are named. It wasn’t until the 1960s that scientists even realized fungi wasn’t part of the plant kingdom but its own category of living things. Now, cutting-edge research is focused on genetics — and foragers can help by collecting as many kinds of mushrooms as they can find.
“They’re trying to identify what is the difference between this continent’s mushrooms and that continent’s mushrooms that look exactly the same,” Jansen said. “It’s like, ‘We thought they were exactly the same, but oh wait, they have different compounds. We were telling everybody these were edible, but who knows, they might cause liver damage after 16 years of eating them every day.’
“It’s so new of a science that even a citizen can be a leading scientist.”
The mushroom savant
Take Noah Siegal, of Massachusetts, who knows more about mushrooms than perhaps anyone on the continent. His fans call him a mushroom savant.
Seigal, who joined the Colorado foragers this month ahead of a fungi talk for the Colorado Mycological Society, has no formal degree in fungi but has been studying mushrooms since he was 7 years old, or 33 years ago.
“I played around with it as a kid and then kept going as a teenager, and before I knew it, I was too good to stop,” said Seigal, who wrote “Mushrooms of the Redwood Coast” and is working on another book about mushrooms in the Pacific Northwest.
Siegal has named 10 to 15 mushrooms so far by publishing scientific papers on previously undescribed mushrooms. Only about half of the mushrooms of the world even have names. “I want to know what every mushroom is,” he said in the forest as, one by one, Colorado foragers thrust a mushroom in front of Siegal’s face and asked him to identify it.
To name a mushroom, a scientist has to know every type of mushroom in that group of mushrooms, and there are hundreds. ”So that’s difficult,” Seigal said. “But what you can do is compare with specialists in that group and say, ‘Hey, I have this species and I’m fairly certain it’s new. Have you seen this before?’”
Fungi is Siegal’s full-time job, and he gets paid enough to live by taking speaking engagements around the country. He hunts for mushrooms across the United States and Canada, and as far as New Zealand and Australia. “I live pretty cheaply,” he explains. “The advantage is I get to travel around the world and not have to pay for it. I love never being home, except when it’s mushroom season there.”
Siegal also has built a reputation as a mushroom photographer, gathering fans on Instagram, where he identifies himself as a “nomadic mycologist.” In one of his most viral photos, the claw of a dead opossum clutches a purple space-ship-like mushroom called a Laccaria amethystina.
The focus of the foray was to collect as many unique samples of mushrooms as possible in three hours for a recent fair at the Denver Botanic Gardens. The group collected not only the mushrooms, but a bit of the earth, log, pine needles or whatever the mushroom was growing on in the woods.
They followed a trail up Deer Creek, but it wasn’t a hike. Instead, they were off trail every few feet upon spotting a mushroom, then squatting to dig it from the ground. Most carried special mushroom foraging knives with a blade on one end to slice the stem and a brush on the other to cast off dirt.
As the morning passed, each filled their basket or plastic tray organizer with mushrooms — porcinis with burnt-orange caps, tall white corals that look like they belong in the ocean, and gray puffballs that spew a dust of spores when squished. Hawk’s wings mushrooms, which have a cap that resembles brown and white feathers, were easy to find, then tucked into backpacks to saute later. Always with butter. Sometimes with garlic salt.
Psychedelic mushrooms sold in Colorado aren’t growing in the wild around here. They’re grown commercially, more easily cultivated than other kinds of mushrooms because they are decomposers and grow on other materials, including dung.
They don’t need a relationship with the trees.
The same is true for mushrooms commonly found in the grocery store, including cremini, portobellos and shiitakes.
One of the best finds of the foray was a Hydnellum suaveolens mushroom, which smelled not at all like a mushroom or dirt. Its scent is sweet but light, definitely pleasant and hard to describe. “I call this one the air freshener,” Sommer said. “Put it in your car and leave it there for like a week.” Even he can’t describe its scent. “There’s no connection with other plants or animals.”
“Tastes like bacon”
Agota Aczel, the most enthusiastic of the foragers, had a mushroom book, a foray knife and plastic bags to store mushrooms tucked into her wicker basket. At the sight of a purple mushroom, or a pink one, a phallic one, or one shaped like a flower, she would suck in a breath and say, “Oh my gosh!”
Aczel, originally from Hungary and now living in Aurora, sometimes gets teary while taking in the delicate details of a mushroom. She oohs and ahhs when another mushroom expert Siegel shows her a mushroom that he says smells of “rancid flour.”
“I’m totally not outdoorsy,” said Aczel, who got into mushrooms just before the pandemic. “I only come for the mushrooms. I usually cry. They’re so beautiful.”
She once found a large, meaty bolete, which she cooked in butter. “It tasted like bacon,” she said. “Oh my gosh, it’s the best.”
Calvin Davis, who works in cybersecurity for the U.S. Air Force, started foraging with his mom 10 years ago, when he was a kid. He doesn’t know the names of many mushrooms, but enjoys the weekend forays in the woods. And he can identify mushrooms well enough to know which are good to eat — most of the time.
On a backpacking trip in the Sangre de Cristos, though, Davis found a bolete he thought was safe. “I ate it. And I threw up all night. For hours,” he said. “It was a dumb move on my part.” Turns out he ate an aspen bolete, which in Colorado only grows with aspen trees and makes some people sick. Davis thought it was a different mushroom, the kind that grows under spruce trees.
The number of Coloradans who have discovered mushroom hunting in the last two years has doubled the membership in the mycological society to more than 1,000 and filled up training classes in rapid order. Sommer’s evening courses, which he teaches in borrowed space at Saint Joseph Hospital, were capped at 30 people and filled up within three hours. He bumped the cap to 48 people and hit that, too.
Sommer, who recently retired after a long career in real estate, now does mushrooms full time as a hobby, volunteering his time to lead the club and teach others.
He’s made three recent trips to the burn scar left by the 2021 Sylvan Lake fire, southeast of Eagle, to hunt for morels, collecting 50 pounds. He freeze-dries them, eats them and gives them to friends. He met another forager there who gathered 50 pounds in a day and sold them for $35 per pound — which is $1,750.
While in Eagle to attend a mushroom festival this month, Sommer found a rare Amanita barrowsii, a “really beautiful, pinkish-orange” mushroom he had never seen before. “It’s always exciting for me, given I’ve done this for 45 years, to see a mushroom I haven’t seen before,” he said. “Like wow, isn’t that fun?”