Mushrooms are everywhere!

But which ones are good to eat?

By Forrest Whitman

We’re coming to the end of a good mushroom hunting summer. There will still be some mushroom blooms, though, and avid hunters haven’t put away their mushroom knives just yet. Actually a few varieties fruit best in the cool nights of September. Last week I went out hunting with a member of the Mycological Society and the Denver Botanic Gardens. She’s been hunting and eating mushrooms for many years and is a real expert. She’s also an old friend of the author of what many call the definitive mushroom book, Mushrooms of Colorado by Vera Stucky Evenson. That’s a good book to take along. As we ambled along we chatted about many of the current issues in mushroom land.

Can we eat the red/orange cap boletus varieties?

  Everyone prizes boletus edulus. Those thick stems and huge caps make the mouth water. But, I confess that for thirty years I’ve eaten “pine” boletus and “aspen” boletus too. These aspen “red caps” and aspen “orange caps” seem pretty tasty I’d say.  I’ve seldom run across the yellow caps, but the red caps are often plentiful. I like to sautee them lightly in butter and add them to my lunch. Actually red caps and orange caps are not true boletus at all. Rather they are leccinum. These days there is a caution about eating the yellow to orange caped in color. So far the red caps seem to be fine. No one dies from eating the orange caps, but stomach upset and vomiting are reported. That will ruin your whole day of mushroom collecting.

How to tell Them apart

  Everyone knows and prizes the boletus edulus. I’ve enjoyed some of them this summer. Red caps and orange caps look a lot like the tasty boletus edulus at first glance. But there are some distinguishing marks. For one thing the stems of the boletus edulus are fat, while the other two have moderately thinnish stems. Also, both orange and red caps have “dog teeth marks” on the stems. That means there are black elongated marks up the stem sides. Boletus edulus, on the other hand, have creamy white skins. It’s those dog tooth marks that make red caps easily distinguished from boletus edulus.

If the collector has any doubts it’s good to cut them open and notice how they stain. Red caps will turn wine colored right away, while orange caps will stain a purplish gray. Different folks respond differently to mushrooms. Better safe than sorry, so I’d suggest not eating aspen orange caps ever. I don’t anymore. As my mycologist friend suggests, it’s best to avoid the red caps just so as not to confuse them with the yellows. Like all mushrooms, edible or not, these are useful fungi. They break down all manner of vegetation and convert it into good soil. They may also filter out toxins. Mushrooms do a good job.

Enjoying the Poisonous varieties

  One of my favorite nature writers is Ann Zwinger. In her book Beyond the Aspen Grove she describes how much she enjoys coming on a stand of russola emetica or a nice bunch of red-capped and white spotted fly mushrooms (fly amenita). I agree with her – these are fairy tale mushrooms. Sometimes the big red ones are nearly two feet across. You expect to see some elf pop out from behind those bright red puff balls of the fly amenita. The delicious dark red of the russola emetica is just lovely to behold. They can fill a whole meadow with bright scarlet. Of course, the hunter mustn’t even touch them, but I often do stop just to enjoy the colors. Ann Zwinger says that the joy of mushroom hunting is at least as much in watching each part of the forest as the many colors come out. There are some subtle colors too. In one small area she sees ochers, blues, pinks, and greens. Take your time and you will see those colors too. Even the edible puff balls add their own whiteness to the palate.

Everyone has a favorite

  Lately I’ve come across one of my favorites. The pink flesh of the lactarium deliciousus shades to salmon and shades even more to milk orange as it invites me to take it home with me. Even the slightly concave dent in the top with its greenish hue ads to the visual feast. It’s always best to slice one or two open to see how they bleed. It should be fairly bright red. The nose knows too. They have a very pleasant odor. If you get enough to bake in a pyrex dish you’ll be rewarded by a sweet smell permeating your whole kitchen when you take the lid off.


Another favorite of many collectors is the inky cap. As the name implies the cap is inky underneath. They are easy to spot since they like disturbed ground, compost heaps, and grow right in trails.  They are favorites of beginner mushroom collectors since they are so easy to identify.  Most wild mushrooms need to be cooked as soon as possible, but that’s especially the case with inky caps. Wait too long and you’ll have black ink.

Other collectors love the hawk’s wing mushroom. It’s easy to spot since it really does look like a hawk’s wing. Some collectors find a hint of hazel nut in the flesh. And, the flesh can be quite large too. Some hawk’s wings, especially at high altitudes, can be a foot wide. I find these mushrooms a bit on the woody side if they’re not young. Still, they are a favorite for many.

The one you can’t go wrong with and a common mistake

  Collectors mostly like the suillus family. They have characteristic soda straws rather than gills under their caps. They are common throughout the Colorado mountains. All the suillus add some flavor to soups or are eaten just sautéed in butter. Best of all, none of these guys are poisonous. A common mistake, though, concerns the much sought after morel mushroom. These are the wrinkle capped guys that go for astronomical prices in specialty restaurants. If you do find them it’s good to pull out your mushroom guide book and just make sure. That’s because another species looks a little like the true morel and it is poisonous. That poisonous mushroom, the false morel, is darker and more convoluted. But a word to the wise is wise.

Be an Ethical Collector

These days there are commercial collectors in our mountains. They collect every darn mushroom in an area, or it looks like that to me. I’ve even seen areas where they’ve dug up a whole row of mushrooms with a shovel. The forest service is trying to insist that these commercial folks get a permit in advance and comply with common sense rules. That’s especially true where a forest fire has recently moved through. Nothing gets mushroom bloom going like a burned over site, but that’s all the more reason to take care. The collectors I know try to be much more ethical. They don’t pick the huge guys, for those are needed to drop spores for next year. Nor do they pick the tiny mushrooms just emerging from the forest floor. All the middle sized mushrooms are headed for the kitchen. That’s unless those mushroom are already occupied. Many little forest critters like to live in mushrooms. It’s always best to cut mushrooms from the forest floor with a knife and then cut them open again just to look. If the mushroom is inhabited it is best to leave it alone.

Happy Collecting

September is an interesting month to collect mushrooms. Best to get out there soon though – we all know what comes next.

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