FrontRangeLiving.com -> Outdoors -> Fungi and Lichens
Gardens of Mushrooms and Lichens
It’s late August during a dry, hot summer. The season is
waning and sudden rains have pelted the mountains. As any mushroom hunter knows,
this is the time to ferret out wild mushrooms. So on this sultry day,
enthusiasts from the Colorado Mycological Society have gathered on the road to
Mount Evans near Echo Lake.
At a roadside picnic table we’re unloading the
unmistakable implements of mushroom gathering: wicker basket with a flat bottom,
clean cloth in the bottom of the basket, wax paper bags, sharp knife, mushroom
identifying book. We are not out to find only edible mushrooms but are on task
to gather a variety of stunning fruit to display. This road will provide enough
to indicate just how varied and beautiful our Colorado mushrooms can be.
The French adore chanterelles. The Italians savor porcinis.
The Japanese crave matsutakes. Truffles, which are underground mushrooms, cost
plenty. Mushrooms are ancient food but still mysterious. Were you to question
chefs or hikers, their mushroom knowledge might be thin and scanty. Mushrooms
are unlike any other food. They’re not even a plant. Mushrooms are fungi. And
that has everyone on guard.
Many carry fanciful names: lawyer’s wig or fairy’s
fingers, plums and custard or velvet foot. Wild mushrooms not only are a puzzle,
with lore that evokes hobbits and forest creatures, but also arouse a sense of
the deadly. Most are not deadly. But many will make you so sick that one
mycologist says, “You’ll only wish you could die.” Evidently, through a
kind of ancient wisdom, we all are born with a reverence for these forest
fruits. Unless you know exactly what you are eating, they are best left to
themselves. Scientists warn us that all mushrooms contain some toxins and should
be cooked before eating. Heating nullifies many of the noxious chemicals—a
knowledge that our ancestors understood and abided.
There’s bit more to mushroom existence than only our
cuisines. What we see above ground is the fruit of fungi. An elegant and
elaborate network of fungi underground called mycelium reacts when
conditions are right to send fruit above soil’s surface. What we see are
stalks of fungus that provide spores to reproduce. In the shade of the mushroom
cap, a tiny umbrella sometimes with gills, spores will be released that pepper
the forest floor. In a dry and dusty summer with little moisture, these fruits
might never appear. But now that late summer rains have drenched the mountains,
mushrooms abound. Even so, only devoted hunters see what’s at our feet. It may
be only a slight bulge covered by pine needle debris, a golden nub or a white
speck. Seasoned collectors zoom in on what most of us pass by. In no time,
we’ve filled baskets with stunning fungi and return to the picnic table to
reveal a bounty.
We’re not here to find edibles, although one person has
discovered a chanterelle and another a coveted oyster mushroom. But these will
go on display, along with all others once a year when mushrooms lovers meet to
identify and talk about local mushrooms. Some like to identify mushrooms with
their collective knowledge, although a spore print or a close look under a
microscope may be necessary. Others are exacting chefs who desire a particular
unusual edible: the hawk’s wing or white king bolete, oyster mushroom or white
matsutake. In the spring, a few may chance upon the blond morel.
Some of us care only to photograph mushrooms, seeking out
not those of choice cuisine, but the most elaborate or jewel like--something
like the Amanita muscaria, the hallucinogenic mushroom that results in
more trips to hospital emergency rooms than any other mushroom. It’s commonly
labeled fly agaric and the mature cap is unmistakable: bright red with white or
silver spots. Like a bright light, it glows from the forest floor.
Despite the dangers associated with naïve mushroom
tasting, fungi are friends. Penicillin is derived from fungi. So are the yeasts
for breads, wines and beers. In a relationship with algae they form lichens.
Fungi recycle the organic waste of the world; you can observe them at work on
the trunk of a dead tree. But some mushrooms perform an essential act that we do
not see and rarely appreciate. They take raw nutrients from the soil and
transform them into useable sugars for the roots of many trees, both conifers
and broad-leaved. It now appears that most plants live in concert with some
fungi in order to have access to basic elements. Some plants require a
particular fungus; others will draw from a vast assortment. That’s why a
knowledgeable mycologist knows to find certain mushrooms under certain trees at
a particular time of the year.
Mushrooms are everywhere, more or less. They’re in your
lawn or log pile. You can find many in cemeteries and city parks. Riverbanks,
grasses and even the edges of tundra will have mushrooms. But the majority of
extraordinary mushrooms pop up on forest floors, in montane and subalpine
elevations, companions to pines, spruce and aspen. The more varied the forest,
the greater the banquet. And while mycologists have their own privately mapped
destinations to gather a favorite fungus, for most of us it’s more useful to
pay attention to the ground. Mushrooms often appear alongside a popular trail.
Their fruiting will be brief, perhaps only a day or two.
And, once picked, wild mushrooms quickly decompose, turning into nutrients that
enrich the forest floor. That’s
why not one of us has arrived with plastic bags—a death knell for a fragile
fungus. We stand them on end in our baskets, each encased in an open waxed paper
bag. We’ve passed over spent or immature mushrooms, which make identification
more difficult. And some carry small mesh bags intended to allow the spores to
fall from the mushroom caps. Perhaps swinging the small bags contributes to
future mushrooms by sprinkling the spores onto the forest floor.
Once you begin to group mushrooms into cup fungi or teeth
fungi, puffballs or bird’s nest fungi—all major key groups--a mushroom will
stop you in your tracks. You’ll recognize which trees it’s connect to, or
what role it plays in the forest. No longer will a mushroom rise without any
context to its existence. The lowly mushroom that once looked scary or weird
tells you that growing conditions are excellent for the fungus and its forest
Lichens at Lory State Park
State Park, west of Fort Collins, usually draws bird lovers or wildflower
enthusiasts. But on a wet summer day, the lichens--arrayed in orange, gold,
yellow, green, gray and brown, boldly splashed against black rock--distract from
the more dainty blossoms.
against the foothills, Lory once was an old ranch that now surrounds and
protects Horsetooth Reservoir. Touted as a wildflower haven, Well Gulch Trail
follows a narrow creek. Rock walls line the canyon anchoring the tapestries of
mosses, ferns and lichens.
volunteer strolls along a popular trail leading a group of schoolchildren:
"I've become aware of lichens growing along Well Gulch--that is our
area of metamorphic rock. The temperature and the light and pH factor must be
suitable. The lichen species are doing well this year; I have attributed that to
the rainfall," she says.
may appear more colorful after a rain, but many withstand intense periods of
drought. Homeowners who mist lichen-covered rocks in their gardens should leave
them alone, botanists say. They have adapted over millions of years to both
deluge and drought.
13,000 species exist around the world. Recent research now challenges a few
age-old beliefs. While naturalists consider them to be essential to establishing
plant life by dissolving rock into soil over hundreds or thousands of years,
even this assumption is under scrutiny. Wind and water erosion, with earth
shattering powers, eclipse any amount of soil produced by lichens. But one fact
stands out as indisputable. In recent times, dying lichens have been linked to
air pollution because lichens take nutrients from air and rainfall. If either is
laced heavily with toxic chemicals, the lichens will diminish. But if left alone
in a healthy environment, some will live for a thousand years or more. Lichens
are susceptible to sulfur dioxide, the by-product of burning fossil fuels. The
discovery that lichens are sensitive to air pollution dates to the 19th century
in England, when scientists noticed a relationship between the decline of
lichens and the rise of industrial pollution.
teachers often explain that fungi and algae form a partnership to benefit each
other. Algae provide chlorophyll and the fungi provide cover or minerals.
Without each other, they might not survive. But as a twosome, they prevail. The
relationship is more complex though, with many scientists describing the fungus
as a kind of parasite, living only with the help of the alga and controlling how
and where both grow.
landscape differs in altitude, humidity, aridity, rock types, sun exposure and
soil components--all because of our numerous microclimates. Landscape that
fosters a variety in butterflies and wildflowers will foster lichen varieties,
too, about 600 in Colorado alone. Lory is one example of sudden shifts in
altitude, humidity and rock types. While the state park contains lichens nestled
among the foothills, other Colorado lichens exist in the alpine tundra and on
scrutinize algae and fungi combinations because the same kinds of lichens can be
found all over the world. This has prompted scientists to study lichens as
indicators of ancient history, long before continental drifts. A thorough study
of Colorado lichens and more developed plants reveals many are identical to
those found in middle Asia and Siberia. Our Rocky Mountain alpine lichens are
older than current day Arctic lichens and suggest that we are hiking among
relics of a prehistoric natural world that once fostered Asiatic and North
State Park is a foothills gem, partly because of the four ecosystems in the park
that knit together a small area: montane, grassland, riparian and shrubs.
Cottonwood trees (Populus deltoids) and willows (Salix sp.) sink
roots into the damp slopes around the reservoir. Mountain mahogany (Cercocarpus
montanus), chokecherry (Prunus (Padus) virginiana) and wild plum
trees (Prunus americana) shelter tiny birds alongside the river trails.
Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) forests rise from the river trails
leading to the trail of ponderosa pines (Pinus ponderosa), which is drier
with a cushion of pine needles underfoot.
the lichens are most vivid along the river trails, where rock walls studded with
hanging plants, mosses tucked into crevices and ledges of blooming
evening-primroses (Oenothera caespitosa) provide a botanical cathedral.
Horsetails (Equisetum sp.), a hollow, primitive, reedy plant, line the
trail alongside mountain mahogany. The Well Gulch stream is fed both by snowfall
and a spring, which original homesteaders once relied upon for a dependable
along the trail, lichens change from golden to chartreuse, gray to white.
Lichens cover rocky ledges, nearly every inch of rock bearing a fuzzy or furry
appearance. Just inside some rock shelves the lichens change to white or gray
with scalloped edges, like rudimentary plants designed for science fiction. Some
are reminded of coral reefs, where the plant life appears alien, but rugged and
suited perfectly to an exacting location.
fall into three broad categories such as the colorful green and chartreuse that
make up the foliose, or leaf-like lichen category. Crustose, is typical of the
crusty gray lichens so prevalent in Colorado. Other lichens fall into the
category of fruticosa, where the lichen forms a kind of arching pendant.
lichens contain antibiotic properties and some have been used as food by
insects, animals and people. But lichens have escaped the culinary fervor found
among mushroom gatherers. There's no worry that adventurous cooks will scrape
the walls clean for a fruticosa salad. Lichens arrived very early in the world's
primitive botanical history and have survived climate changes, the nibbling of
herbivores and insects, and the curiosity of most humans. Modest by botanical
standards, lichens rarely wow a crowd--until you discover some remarkable
Echo Lake and
Chicago Lake, Mt Evans Wilderness
From Idaho Springs (I-70) take exit 240 and proceed south on Colorado 103 for
12.5 miles. The turnoff is located at 39.6606N, 105.6050W. Park at Echo Lake
Park, ¼ mile off Colorado 103. Echo Lake Park is on the western edge of Echo
Lake and has access to the Chicago Lakes trails.
You don’t have to hike far. This is perfect mushroom habitat and with
sharp eyes, you’ll spot them within a few hundred feet. Keep your eyes off
trail for the easy 1 mile to the Idaho Springs Reservoir.
Forest Service, Clear Creek Ranger District, PO Box 3307, Idaho Springs, CO
80452, 303-567-3000, http://www.fs.fed.us/r2/arnf/recreation/trails/ccrd/chicagolakes.shtml.
at the University of Colorado Museum, Boulder, http://cumuseum.colorado.edu/Research/Botany.
State University Herbarium, Fort Collins, http://herbarium.biology.colostate.edu.
Lory State Park
Directions: From Fort Collins, take US 287 north to County
Road 54G (old US 287) and follow it to LaPorte. Continue through the town for 1
mile and turn left onto County Road 52E (Rist Canyon Road). At Bellvue, turn
left at County Road 23N, go 1.4 miles and take a right on County Road 25G. Park
entrance is another 1.6 miles. Pick up a trail map at the visitor center which
is just a short distance inside the park, at 40.5906N, 105.1841W.
Features: My favorite lichen trail is Lory’s Well Gulch
Nature Trail, an easy 1.5-mile loop that follows a seasonal drainage. Highlights
are the riparian flowers and lichens. Pets permitted, on leash.
State Park, 708 Lodgepole Dr, Bellvue, CO 80512, 970-493-1623, http://parks.state.co.us/Parks/Lory.
State Park abuts Larimer County’s Horsetooth Mountain Park which has 29
additional miles of trails. Contact Larimer Parks and Open Lands Department,
1800 South County Road 31, Loveland, CO 80537, 970-679-4570, http://co.larimer.co.us/parks/brochure_htmp.pdf.
York Botanic Garden, http://www.nybg.org/bsci/lichens.