Burn morels are quite the delicacy, highly sought after for their meaty umami flavor. (Photo by Joe Amon/The Denver Post)
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When writing a story such as this, you’re supposed to set the scene. You measure, in words, the splendor of the mountains — the Culebra Range of the Sangre de Cristos, if that helps — and you identify the precise blue of the sky.

But I can’t tell you a thing about the forest I walked through (although I’m sure there were trees and that they were lovely), because what were popping out of the ground were the most fascinating things I’ve seen in a long, long time, and my eyes were riveted downward, on the charred, burnt earth.

From the pine cones, leaves, weeds, sprouts, twigs, brush, pine, dirt and ash — 50 shades of brown, really — burst morel mushrooms. Specifically, burn morels (or fire morels), which flourish the year after large wildfires.

The spongy, hollow, honeycombed little weirdos are the Cadillacs (or the Teslas, depending on your generation) of mushrooms. They’re coveted for their meaty, umami-rific taste, and they’re hard to find. Unless it’s the year following a forest fire, in which case it can be a burn morel bonanza.

Last summer, the Spring Creek Fire burned 108,045 acres in southern Colorado, making it the third-largest wildfire in state history. It crept very close to little La Veta, population 779, but spared the town. What I was scouring the earth for up at Old La Veta Pass are the silver lining of that devastation.

“I’d always heard of fire morels but never had the opportunity to find them,” said Bob Kennemer, professional naturalist and director of La Veta’s Francisco Fort Museum and my guide for the foraging. “The year after the fire, they’re the most prolific, and then they fade out the years after that. We’ve got a lot this year.”

No one really knows why fire triggers the mushrooming of the mushrooms.

It could be chemical changes in the soil, less competition from other forest-sprouting organisms, the loss of food or a clearer path to fruition due to the lack of duff (the forest litter of shed pine and other vegetative parts) on the forest floor.

But trigger it does, and this year has been a banner one for the delicious fungus. Kennemer, who moved to La Veta from Denver 33 years ago to be closer to the mountains and forests he loves, took me about 20 minutes out of town to Uptop (elevation 9,382 feet) for my first morel hunt.

Want to go mushroom hunting?

La Veta’s fungi foraging season peaks in mid-August, when you can collect porcinis (also known as king boletes), orange caps, Aspen caps, chanterelles and other varieties. Some tips from Bob Kennemer:

  • Go high: a lot of mushrooms flourish between 10,000-11,500 feet.
  • Most mushrooms like shady areas, but chanterelles like sun in conifer forests. The gold ‘shrooms like rocky areas and moss that get sunlight.
  • One trick for finding king boletes — which can grow as large as your head but taste better when they’re Ping-Pong ball- to baseball-sized — is to look for the poisonous red and white dotted mushrooms (fly agaric or Amanita muscaria). Don’t eat those! The boletes like to grow near them.
  • Kennemer suggests looking around the Spanish Peaks, along Cordova Pass Road and Trinchera Peak Road, and above Bear and Blue Lakes. The Wet Mountains are also a great place to find these mushrooms.
  • If you’re unsure about the species, put it in a separate bag from the rest of your haul to avoid cross-contamination.
  • Be careful. Don’t put anything in your mouth unless you’re certain it’s safe to eat.

“Fire morels tend to be higher up, 9,000-10,000 feet,” Kennemer told me. “They’re more in pine forests; some among the deciduous trees that burned. We want scorched earth, soot, not much greenery. We’re looking for more severely burned areas.”

One of the good things about searching for burn morels, especially for a mushroom foraging virgin like myself, is that they’re fairly difficult to mix up with those other kinds of mushrooms, the poisonous, hallucinogenic ones that, in spite Denver’s new referendum, I’m not wanting to eat.

Still, they’re hard to spot. At least at first. The morels are almost the exact same color as the burnt pine needles and cones that surround them, and we (OK, I) had several false alarms.

But then I saw one. Two or three inches tall, slender and short-footed, emerging from the ground. I yelped with glee at my discovery, beyond pleased with myself. I couldn’t have been happier had I discovered actual treasure. Wait; these are actual treasure.

Kennemer showed me how to use a knife to separate my little guy’s bottom from the forest floor, an easy slit across the base. He brushed off the duff so they’d be easier to clean later, at home, and we put my morel into a brown paper Trader Joe’s bag.

“We don’t want to put them in plastic — they sweat and get full of moisture and then they’ll get slimy,” Kennemer said.

If it’s a hot day (which it was and will likely continue to be for the rest of summer), he recommends sticking them in an ice chest so they’re not sitting in a hot car for hours.

Within an hour, we’d plucked so many burn morels that we’d filled at least half of that Trader Joe’s bag. I’d say we got a bushel, but since I don’t really know how much a bushel is, we’ll go with at least half a Trader Joe’s bag.

The bad news is that burn morel season is waning; these guys pop up in burn scars in late spring and early summer. I still found a great crop on July 9, but they’re drying out, and once dry they won’t be as tasty. Luckily La Veta’s regular mushroom season — which peaks in mid-August — is about to heat up. And with all the moisture we’ve gotten, it could be a gold mine of fungi.

“Wetter years equal more mushrooms,” Kennemer said. “Unless we get another dry spell. With global warming, things have been getting warmer. At times I haven’t been able to find a single mushroom, which is really bad for the forest ecology. I only got a handful of mushrooms last year.”

It’s true that I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed my foraging experience quite as much had I not found so many, but then I might have noticed the splendor of the mountains and the precise blue of the sky. Meh. I’ll take the mushrooms.

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