Head to New Mexico mountains to forage for mushrooms

12:00 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017 Travel

We lobbied Mother Nature for rain, high humidity and fungus when we planned this trip, and now she’s delivering.

In the Lincoln National Forest of New Mexico, afternoon thunderstorms drop belly-fulls of water in the forest in August, triggering mushroom madness in the mountains.

And mushrooms are why we’ve come. We want to stir them into pasta and cook them into omelets. (No, we don’t want the kind that make you hallucinate.) But Mother Nature doesn’t care if we’re gourmet cooks or not, so we’re not sure what we’ll find.

Don Baumgardt, who heads a biking and hiking tour business called GeoBetty Tours based in El Paso, timed the adventure to take advantage of monsoon season. Since our early August trip also happens to coincide with the Perseid meteor shower, we’ve dubbed it “Shower With a Fungi.”

Right now, after a night of rain, we’re strolling down a trail, pausing every few minutes to inspect another ear-, umbrella- or dome-shaped fungus that pokes its head through the soil or peeps out of a rotting log.

“It’s useless to try to find the mushrooms,” Baumgardt jokes. “The mushrooms find you.”

It’s been our mantra all weekend, but from the moment we pulled into the parking lot of the Slide campsite in Sacramento Mountains and spotted a tree stump bristling with hatchet-shaped wedges of fungus, we’ve seen a lot of mushrooms. Before the day ends, we’ll have found more than 25 different types, a bounty I never predicted.

Fungus comes in all forms, colors and sizes, and more than 375 types grow in New Mexico. A quick flip through an encyclopedia of mushrooms turns up some crazy-looking species that grow on the planet, including Agaricopolyporus extraterrestrialis, which looks like a squadron of glowing spaceships perched on the side of a tree trunk, and Lysurus periphragmoides, a member of the stinkhorn family that smells like rotting flesh and attracts flies. (I’m telling you, mushrooms are cool!)

We’re armed with pocket knives and paper bags (plastic bags make mushrooms sweat), and now and then someone gently nudges one from its anchor. To make sure we don’t pick anything toxic or hallucinogenic, we’ve enlisted a mycologist, or fungus expert, to join us.

“If we see any choice mushrooms, we’ll collect them and cook them up,” Cat Cort, our resident mushroom expert, told us as we set out. She’s working on her doctorate in biology and has long swooned for ’shrooms, partly because so much about them remains unknown.

“There will always be new things to discover,” she says. “It’s like a frontier of science, and we’ll never get to the end of it.”

Besides, as a vegan, she likes to eat them, too. “From a culinary standpoint, I love the idea of wild edibles foraging,” Cort says. “It’s free, open and available to anyone. You don’t have to buy them at a grocery store. It’s accessible to anyone, and there’s a plethora of things.”

Just make sure you know what you’ve found before you put a mushroom in your mouth, she advises. “Some mushrooms are deadly poisonous or will make you very sick. It’s better to err on the side of caution.”

Which is why, after our hike, we carefully spread our findings out on a table back at camp and take a closer look. Cort examines each mushroom’s shape, color and texture, and gently scrapes the surface of each to see if it bruises or changes color. She inspects the gills beneath the caps and places each one on a piece of foil, so she can check the spores that come from each sample. All these characteristics help identify an exact species.

Our group of about a dozen participants has come mostly out of curiosity. We all love to camp, and mushroom foraging is just one more way to enjoy the outdoors. If it means free food, well, that’s just a bonus.

Victor Cordero, 43, who is camping with us, has more than a passing interest in fungus. He recently returned from a summer internship at a mushroom farm in the Summerland, British Columbia, called What the Fungus, where he learned the ins and outs of raising mushrooms. Now he’s inoculated logs at his farm near El Paso, where he hopes to harvest his own crop.

“I discovered the many benefits of mushrooms,” he says. Some are good to eat, but others mushrooms have medicinal qualities.

Our morning hike has spawned everything from brown, jellylike wood ears to dense, woody conks. We’ve got fungus rimmed in purple, mushrooms with orange caps and mushrooms that resemble tiny, sunset-hued bits of ocean coral.

What we know as mushrooms are actually the flowering part of a larger fungus that lives underground or in a tree, Cort explains. If you spot one mushroom, chances are it’s connected via an underground network you can’t see to other surrounding fungi.

After a careful examination, Cort determines that we can’t eat any of the mushrooms we’ve found. Some won’t taste good; others might make us sick. A few she just can’t positively identify, and it’s not worth taking the risk.

That doesn’t really matter. We’ve brought a supply of store-bought mushrooms just in case, and before long we whip up some potatoes, garlic, spinach and shitake mushrooms, which we happily fork into tortillas to make tacos.

Life, it seems, is better when we’ve got fungus among us.

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