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Snow brings spring mushrooms

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By Birdie Jaworski

The dip between the cut monolith of Hermit’s Peak drips with moisture this time of year, the ground swollen with melted snow, mist clinging to each budding leaf each time clouds gather around the hermit’s cave.

The mountain feels alive. Pine trees burst skyward with new growth. Tiny yellow and purple flowers dot sunny secret corners protected from the wind by resting rocks. And mushrooms begin to peek from underneath the thick cover of forest floor, mushrooms in strange shapes and colors, some as thin and wide as dinner plates, some sturdy and scalloped.

Mushrooms are the fruiting body of an organism called mycelium that grows underground, inside tree trunks, anywhere abundant food and water reside. Since the mycelium is usually dispersed over a relatively large area, it is rarely noticed.

In nature, some species of mushrooms may have a mycelium body that spreads over hundreds of square miles.

Mushrooms grow on all continents, a few even in Antarctica. Mycologists — scientists who study mushrooms — estimate that there are more than 1.5 million different species, even though only 80,000 have been identified and named. New Mexico is home to roughly 700 different mushroom species, some of the most delicious and prized growing in San Miguel County.

Spring’s thaw creates the perfect conditions for one of the most sought-after mushrooms in the world — morchellas, the famed morels. Several locations in San Miguel have been known to sport the rare mushrooms after wet winters, but local hunters are usually reluctant to share their favorite hunting spots.

Morels look like strange skinny, triangular brains atop woody stems, and are not easily mistaken for any other species. They pop up overnight, often in places once ravaged by fire.

Local mushroom hunter Jose Chavez spends early spring mornings chasing the elusive fungi. Chavez drives a pickup truck into the creek canyons surrounding Hermit’s Peak, usually in the company of his teenaged grandson. He brings a mushroomer’s toolkit — a woven basket for collection, a compass, a map, insect repellent and a sense of humor.

“I know a few places where morels grow, but I ain’t sharing,” Chavez said, laughing. “Last year was a good year, and this year looks to be better. My wife sautees them with garlic and butter, and you never tasted anything so delicious in your life. I’m retired this year, so I plan to start looking now. This is the right time to hunt. You want to look under dead of fallen trees, near a water source. If an area smells like damp leaves, you’re in the neighborhood. It’s more of an art than a science, really.”

As the cool afternoons of spring fade into sun-drenched summer, local hunters can expect to find the boletes — porcini mushrooms — that cause thousands of hunters to flock to New Mexico’s woods.

Easier to find than morels, boletes crop up in huge numbers in the mountains dotting our county. Boletes are large, meaty, mushrooms that dry well and are considered staples in many gourmet recipes. Hunters find them fun to collect because of their large size and their abundance in the forests. In a good season, it does not take long to collect a basket full.

In many ways picking mushrooms is like buying a dress: You base your quest on the seasons, you find little sites with consistent offerings, and you avoid the strange colors.

However, choose the wrong dress and you could clash with someone, but pick the wrong mushroom and you waft into a toxin-induced psychosis, your liver fails or, at worst, you die within 45 minutes.

It’s this possibility that steers many foragers away from the potential minefield of fungi towards safer wild foods. No one ever died from a bad blackberry.

If you plan to hunt mushrooms, spend a season, better yet, two, exploring with experienced mushroomers who can show you how to identify choice edibles and steer away from poisonous varieties.

Interested in local mushroom hunting and want to join a local group? E-mail the writer at littlebirdie@mac.com or Jose Chavez at chaveznm2003@hotmail.com.