summer's burned areas may prove fertile ground for rare
|Morel mushrooms, such as these,
can fetch lucky mushroom hunters up the $15 a pound.
However, whether the cash crop will flourish in the
wake of last summer's fires is still anybody's guess.
If nature and history join forces this summer in the
Missionary Ridge Fire area, mushroom lovers may be able
to cash in on a delicacy sprouting from the ashes.
Morel mushrooms – a rare find in this area –
could possibly appear in the fire area, creating a bumper
crop of the nutty, sweet, mouthwatering fungus for fungophiles
and commercial harvesters to swoop up. If they appear,
it’ll be the first time such a phenomenon has overtaken
the forest floor of the San Juan Mountains.
Many mushroom species grow wildly in Southwest Colorado.
Normally, prime conditions bring them out of the ground
each year. Though mushroom experts don’t exactly
understand the scientific reasons how and why morels grow
in the wild, they at least know that the mushrooms often
thrive in areas of disturbed soil. Mycologists suspect
it’s because of the drastic change in the soil’s
“It’s one thing about morels that always
makes you wonder,” says John Sir Jesse, a naturalist,
mushroom expert and owner of Herb Walker Tours in Telluride.
“The fire didn’t bring them in, it just activates
them. That means they are here all of the time, it’s
just that normally we don’t have the right conditions.”
Combine disturbed soil with warm weather and moisture,
and morels will likely flourish locally for several weeks
this spring. And with several thousand acres of charred
landscape on Missionary Ridge, officials at the San Juan
National Forest Service are preparing for a possible influx
of mushroom harvesters to take advantage of the morels
– if they appear.
“We don’t know for sure if it’s going
to happen,” says Ann Bond, public information officer
for the San Juan Public Lands Center. “But we know
it’s happened in other forests after a fire, so
we think it’ll happen here.”
Indeed, in 1994, a wildfire outside McCall, Idaho, spawned
abundant morels. Forest Service officials there reported
that people collected “millions of dollars”
worth of morels during a 56-day season. And in 2000, the
mushrooms grew profusely in the Kootenai, Bitterroot,
Salmon-Challis and Helena national forests of Montana
and other Northwest areas, where forest fires charred
hundreds of thousands of acres.
But in the arid Southwest, morels aren’t typically
part of the fungus landscape. They are better suited to
grow wildly in Minnesota and Michigan, or in the wetter
climates of the Northwest, where the commercial harvesting
is a multimillion dollar industry. People in Darby, Mont.,
near the Bitterroot Valley, say that after forest fires
in 2001, mushroom hunters took advantage of a glut of
morels, which fetched as much as $15 per pound.
To prepare for the possible onslaught of mushroom hunters
in Colorado, the Forest Service prepared a report required
by the National Environmental Policy Act. The report,
which will soon be available to the public, outlines how
the San Juan National Forest plans to mitigate the impacts.
Gretchen Fitzgerald, forester for the Pagosa Ranger District,
says she received about a dozen comments from the public,
mostly concerns over trespassing and soil erosion.
“It’s hard to plan for,” she says.
“We’re trying to do our best to be prepared
by talking to other forest districts and our regional
office. We’ve taken information from them about
how they’ve dealt with this in the past.”
Along with the permits each mushroom hunter must acquire,
the Forest Service will give people a map of the 70,000-acre
Missionary Ridge fire. The map distinguishes between private
and public land so that people won’t illegally access
private property. It also indicates which areas of the
forest are closed or off limits to mushroom collection.
In addition, the Forest Service districts that fall within
the fire acreage will increase law enforcement.
“If it really gets crazy, we’ll ask law enforcement
from other districts to help us out,” Fitzgerald
But because of the limited access and steep terrain of
Missionary Ridge, she expects an orderly experience.
“Much of it is so inaccessible that I expect more
recreational hunting than commercial hunting. But I could
be wrong,” she says. “The good thing is that
the use of the land will be so scattered that we don’t
expect there to be much erosion.”
However, because of unstable soil and trees, Fitzgerald
admonishes fungophiles to understand the dangers of entering
the burned area. Beware of flash floods, sand, ash and
falling trees, she says.
Dishing it up
Despite the hazards – and guesswork about what
makes morels tick – the possibility of picking a
mushroom so rare in this area excites many.
“This will be a real treat if it happens,”
Beki Javernick, produce buyer at Durango Natural Foods,
hopes that the health food store will be able to buy morels
from commercial harvesters who come to pick them. DNF
and other natural-food stores in Durango don’t carry
morels, nor are there any local commercial mushroom harvesters
who can provide them. Store produce buyers get their mushrooms
from a New Mexico supplier.
“We’d love to have them,” Javernick
says. “No one ever offers them to us, but if people
come in and want to sell them, we’d buy them.”
Durango resident Karen Anesi has been hunting mushrooms
in Southwest Colorado for more than 20 years. She’s
familiar with morels because they grow on property she
owns in Ohio, where she picks them. This year, in addition
to her usual forays to collect boletus, Anesi hopes to
gather morels on her home turf.
“I’m looking forward to it,” says Anesi.
Local food aficionados can also look forward to it. Some
chefs at Durango restaurants say that if they get their
hands on morels, they likely will introduce special dishes
using the delicacy.
Dennis Morrisroe, executive chef at Seasons, says it’s
likely that the restaurant will serve meals with locally
picked morels. Perhaps, he says, he’ll serve favorite
dishes such as rabbit with fava beans and morels, or a
morel and prosciutto omelet.
“The rabbit is rich and gamey, the fava beans have
an earthy, buttery flavor, and then the morels add a nutty
taste,” Morrisroe says. “It’s one of
those trios of flavor that all come together great.”
He says Seasons likely would buy morels from someone
“If not that way, then I know some cooks in the
kitchen will go pick them,” he said. “Basically,
we’ll get them any way we can.”
Ditto says Ken Fusco, owner of Ken & Sue’s.
The restaurant already uses wild chanterelles and porcinis
“Right now I don’t have any specific plans
for dishes, but if someone comes to us with some, we’d
probably do it,” Fusco says.
A guessing game
Fitzgerald explains that morels traditionally are a spring
mushroom, so people who want to pick them should pay attention
to the snowmelt and temperatures. She guesses that the
mushrooms will appear as early as May and last possibly
for four to six weeks.
“Morel hunting is one of timing,” Jesse says.
“Sometimes it’s very specific. You can’t
just look at the calendar and know. One clue might be
to hunt when oak leaves on the scrub oak bushes are beginning
The mushrooms can be difficult to track at first. Jesse
says that they are “elusive.” He suggests
hunters use guidebooks for identification – or better
yet, rely on the knowledge of people who are morel connoisseurs.
“Morels are one of the best disguised mushrooms
around. If you have a picture in your mind of how one
looks, it’ll make them easier to find.”
Anesi offers her tried-and-true advice: Pay attention
to the grade of the soil and the forest floor. Typically,
you’ll find mushrooms where there is dappled shade
and trees or bark are rotting.
Mushroom experts are expecting to see black morels and
yellow morels grow in the burn area. Although there are
as many as a dozen varieties of morels, the conditions
in the San Juan Mountains exclude all but these two. Jesse
says yellow morels grow at lower elevations – 7,000
feet and below – while black morels grow higher.
But while morels are easy to find once you’ve gained
familiarity with them, there are precautions. False morels
sometimes grow in the same area as true morels. That is,
what you see may not be what you get. One false morel
is the Snow-Bank. Instead of being hollow and having one
large chamber, he says Snow-Banks look like “brains”
with lobes instead of ridges and valleys. They are stocky
and stout, too.
“These you have to be careful about,” Jesse
explains. “They have something akin to jet fuel
In short, don’t swallow if it isn’t hollow.
Meanwhile, as everyone waits to see if the morels will
be a bumper crop or a bummer crop, fungophiles urge neophytes
to learn about other mushroom species they might unearth.
You just might also stumble across a hearty-capped boletus
to make a scrumptious sauce or a smooth yellowish chanterelle
to add apricot flavor to your appetizer.
“It’s like a treasure hunt that is enormously
special,” Anesi says