Wild mushrooms: Beautiful, tasty and sometimes dangerous

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By Sylvia Brockner

My mother was an insatiable reader, and she taught all of us to love books and where they could take us by reading to us every day.

The “Dr. Seuss” of our generation was James Whitcom Riley, and one of my favorite poems by him was, “A Home-made Fairy Tale.” Mother must have become tired of reading it, but she did such a remarkable job that I can still hear her voice and imagine the little fairy in his swallow-tail coat, playing his guitar. I was sure if I looked closely enough, I would actually see him one day. I never did, but still half-believe I might some day.

It was a fairly common belief in those days that the mushrooms that grew in a ring created a place where the fairies danced. These were known as fairy-ring mushrooms, Marismius oreades. We used to have several of these rings in our lawn, some only a foot or two across and one that was much larger.

It was just three arcs, which would have made a circle, but for some reason, a large stone beneath the soil or poor soil, there were places where they did not grow, so the circle was incomplete. Some books say this fairy-ring mushroom is edible and very good, but in the next sentence they warn you there are two other mushrooms that form rings, both of which are very similar and are poisonous.

This is why I have never been interested in collecting mushrooms as food. There are just too many look-a-likes that make positive identification difficult for the amateur, and mushroom poisoning is not an easy death.

August is mushroom month locally because it is usually hot enough and damp enough to provide the moisture they need. There are edible wild mushrooms in the area, and you often see people collecting them in the national forest along Squaw Pass Road. Most often these are people from the Denver Botanical Gardens-based Mushroom Club. It is a fine organization to join if you want to learn more about mushrooms.

Since I don’t trust my identification skills enough to eat them as I have said, I just content myself with enjoying their various kinds and colors. They are great subjects for photography and art, and are amazing, interesting plants. Most of the plant of these gilled mushrooms is known as a mycelium. This is a root-like growth, usually white. It forms an intricate mesh of rootlets underground that looks like a lace doily. On this a bud or buds appear and rapidly develop into the mushroom that pushes up above ground.

The mushroom that we see has an amazing growth rate but is just part of the plant. It is the fruit of the mushroom, producing spores that start new plants. Like a peach on a peach tree, it is the fruit, but the “tree” part is underground.

The exceedingly poisonous fly amanita is also very common in our woods and probably the most asked about for people can’t miss this mushroom. It is big and bright yellow, often shading to orange or red, so it is very noticeable. The top is usually flexed with white or grayish raised bits of the veil, which surrounds all amanitas when in bud.

The fly amanita, Amanita muscarius, was used as a fly poison by simply mashing it with milk. This probably not a very good idea for like all poisons, you never know who or what will find it, and it may be eaten by some other creature than the one it was intended for.

This is a deadly poison, and these mushrooms should not be handled as even small amounts can have tragic results. Some poisonous mushrooms are so potent that just one laid on the top of a basketful of edible mushrooms can poison the entire basket. It is best not to even handle mushrooms you do not know.