The Magical and Magnificent Mushrooms of 2021

September 20, 2021 Andrew Wilson , Associate Curator of Mycology

Sometimes nature throws you a bone. Too much of the information coming to us these days deals with the troubling reality of climate and struggling ecosystems. But then nature comes around and reminds us of its wonderous beauty and why our efforts to conserve it are so worthwhile.

The mushrooms of 2021 were magnificent in the Southern Rockies. Many a lifelong mushroom hunter in Colorado have been saying this is the best year they have ever seen. And it seems fitting that after the year that was 2020, we were able to capture the fascination of mushrooms with two amazing events. In August, the North American Mycological Association (NAMA) held their annual mycological foray at the YMCA Snow Mountain Ranch near Granby, Colorado. The following weekend many of those same NAMA members took the opportunity to attend the Telluride Mushroom Festival. And like the many cooped up people of the past year, it was as if the mushrooms themselves were tired of isolating during the drought and made an appearance en masse.

For NAMA I have the pleasure of serving as the Voucher Collections Project Chair. This job requires coordinating participants at the event as they come back from their forays in the field. Upon their return, we cordon them off to specific tables where they unpack their bounty. There we guide them in filling out specimen labels with their name, when and where they collected their specimens. 

Because there are over 200 participants in the foray, this is a big job. To help me with this, NAMA supports up to six student assistants to attend NAMA. This year we were joined by Annie Schauster (former Gardens volunteer) and Alex Smith who are graduate students in Dr. Sara Branco’s lab at CU Denver. Olivia Filialuna is a returning assistant who helped the project in 2019 when the NAMA Foray was held in Paul Smith’s, New York. Clarissa Arana is a local mycology enthusiast from Ward and was tremendously helpful. These four, along with my two students, Gary Olds and Justin Loucks, made a fantastic team. Altogether we preserved over 160 specimens, each representing a unique species collected over the weekend. No simple feat when these need to be sorted out of the thousands that come through the event on Friday and Saturday.

After Granby, we returned with our bounty to the ecology lab in the Freyer – Newman Center at Denver Botanic Gardens. There we unpacked, sorted and processed all of the specimens from the NAMA Foray. The previous chair, Dr. Patrick Leacock, began organizing and collating the data from the weekend. Olivia helped to track down iNaturalist observation data for these specimens. Drs. Else Vellinga and Nhu Nguyen helped make sure specimens were properly dried and preserved in boxes. 

No sooner did we box up the specimens than Gary and I needed to pack up and head to the Telluride Mushroom Festival. Each year, I need to pinch myself when I visit that town and lovely Ophir in the next valley over. This state is just too painfully beautiful sometimes. At Telluride, Gary spent a lot of time on the mountain searching for mushrooms. I got to spend quite a bit of time getting to know the author and fabled adventurer Lawrence Millman. Between Telluride and Ophir, we did not need to venture far to find a beautiful assortment of mushrooms.

On Thursday of the Festival, I provided a seminar on the mushroom diversity of Colorado. This talk included my annual “Telluride’s Most Wanted” where I encourage people to search for rarely seen mushrooms in the area. I reprised this talk on Saturday for a public walk-in presentation at the Telluride Library. On Sunday, during one of the last events of the Festival, I led a discussion in the park on the evolutionary history of mushrooms. There I shared all the wild and wonderful stories that justify why I study mushrooms - organisms that have tremendously captivating ways of making people fall in love with nature.


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