FABULOUS FUNGI: RENEWABLE TREASURE OF THE HIGH UINTAS
This article was requested of and kindly written by HUPC member Ardean Watts
It usually comes as a surprise to both natives and visitors that Utah's alpine mountains which rise like islands surrounded by stark desert environments sporadically yield a diversity of wild mushrooms which must be seen to be believed. Dr. Kent Mc Knight, co-author of The Field Guide to Mushrooms, estimated that there are well over 2000 species of fungi in the Wasatch/Uinta ranges large enough to be considered as food for humans. While some of them are among the best edible mushrooms on our planet, there are enough deadly poisonous ones to make eating them without identification by an expert a very bad risk. The High Uintas are without rival our most fruitful source for both edible and poisonous kinds.
Most people are attracted to wild mushrooms by the prospect of eating some of the rarest and most delectable organisms on earth. A normal progression from gastronomics to aesthetics and eventually ecological understanding is typical of the progression of most amateurs. A field guide such as McKnight's is a necessity for beginners. It's much easier to learn the ropes from an expert guide than to strike out on your own, so affiliation with a group such as The Mushroom Society of Utah ((801) 466-5124) can jump-start the novice with classes in identification and numerous field trips during the good mushrooming months. MSU holds a two-day foray, most often in the Uinta mountains, usually on the last weekend of August. There are actually two "mushroom" seasons per year in our high mountains the first while there are still a few spring snowbanks at higher elevations and the second following August thundershowers.
About one year in four is bounty or bust. The other two years are modest successes, meaning a few platefuls of good edibles for the persistent make it down the mountain for gourmet fare. Imagine a continuum of 2000 mushrooms with 20 great edibles like Boletus edulis (Porcini to Italians and Cepes to the French) and Cantharellus cibarius (Fr. Chanterelle and German Pfefferlinge) on one end and a like number of dangerously poisonous ones on the other. They gradually blend into edible but not distinguished as we get closer to the middle, with the majority neither poisonous nor tasty and on the other side not life threatening but perhaps upsetting the stomach for awhile.
Mushrooms are as much a feast for the eyes as the palate. I have had to pick my way carefully through forest fruitings to keep from stepping on specimens as large as dinner plates and of infinite colors.
But there is a universe out there beyond both gastronomy and aesthetics. Generally mushrooms can be divided between the decomposers and the mycorrhizal fungi. Decomposers recycle the sick and dead organisms for replenishing the earth. The mycorrhizal fungi form relationships with living plants, mostly trees. The fungal strands which grow unseen underground exchange nutrients with the tiny capillary roots of forest giants, contributing nitrogen and water in exchange for carbon compounds which are the product of photosynthesis. The relationships have become obligatory for both organisms: the trees could not survive the stress of less than optimum growing seasons without the help of the shrooms which are much more capable of extracting precious moisture from the ground; the mushrooms, on the other hand, could not survive without the sugars manufactured by green plants.
So, a walk in the forests of the Uintas in late summer or early fall, with eyes enlightened by an understanding of the daily miracles that take place underground, can be a meditation which can transform our views of nature and of ourselves. The mushrooms we see are merely the reproductive organs of the network of microscopic strands which stretch for miles in every cubic inch of soil. Picking a mushroom is probably no more harmful to the mushroom strands which may grow for years underground before conditions are perfect for fruiting, than picking an apple from a tree. Good moisture years are infrequent, making the mycorrhizal functions of the mushrooms more important in the dry years than in the wet ones.
Responsible mushroomers know and respect the value of all organisms as part of an exquisite and complex whole of which even we mushroomers are a part.