Fungal Jungle

As spring segues into summer, mushroom mania has spread across western Montana

By Tristan Scott
Shrimp russula, right, and morel mushrooms. Greg Lindstrom

The scorched remains of last summer’s robust wildfire season still blanket the contours of Northwest Montana’s forests, a patchwork of blackened burn areas bristling with edible treasures, invoking a primal instinct in droves of hunters and harvesters in search of fresh, feral food.

We’re talking, of course, about mushrooms, which began converting forest floors into ground-level grocers when spring temperatures spiked in mid-May.

For those awaiting the magic window of mushroom hunting, a mosaic of mycological treats await, particularly for those intrepid hunters and foraging foodies willing to venture off the beaten path and climb a little higher in search of any number of coveted varieties.

Surface fire is a natural disturbance that stimulates mushroom growth due to basic mushroom biology, and last year’s fire season has positioned western Montana as a mushroom-picking haven as the “forest products” fruit prolifically.

Morel mushrooms in particular like the ash-augmented soil of recent fires, and this year a bumper crop has lured commercial pickers and amateurs into the forests of western Montana, where nearly 700,000 acres of land managed by Forest Service Region 1 was charred during the 2017 fire season, sparking broad interest in mushroom harvesting, a season that can run through July.

Many varietals of edible mushrooms grow throughout the forests of Flathead County, including morels, chanterelles, shaggy mane, puffballs, boletes, and oyster mushrooms. The Forest Service welcomes mushroom collecting on the Flathead National Forest — commercial harvesting is prohibited on the Flathead but allowed elsewhere — but officials emphasize caution when foraging for mushrooms. Some poisonous mushrooms occur in this region and can be hard to distinguish from edible species.

A general rule of thumb surrounding morels is “if it’s not hollow, do not swallow.” Edible morels are hollow from top to bottom, while a false morel conceals fleshy pockets in its center.

Still, true morels and their signature, honey-comb sided caps are one of the most easily identifiable mushrooms, particularly in Montana, where locals revere them as a delicacy fit for the finest of dining experiences.

Other hazards inherent to scouring burn areas include standing trees whose roots have been compromised by fire, making them prone to falling in high winds.

As of June 5, the latest available information, the Northern Region had administered approximately 1,500 personal use mushroom permits and 1,000 commercial use mushroom permits in areas that allow it, according to a Forest Service spokesperson.

Although the morels of spring are the best-known culinary mushroom species, many other even more coveted varieties can be found throughout the year, including boletes, which taste like an earthy mixture of smoke and coffee, as well as white chanterelles and chicken of the woods. Then there’s the squat, fat-bottomed Montana porcini and, perhaps most famously, the matsutake.

If you’re not well-versed in the hierarchy of prized wild mushrooms, matsutakes (matsies for short) are revered in Japan and are the most expensive mushroom in the world (since truffles aren’t technically a mushroom).

In Japan, they’re collected in the fall, but harvests there have begun to dwindle, and now matsutakes are harvested and imported from a number of different places, including the Pacific Northwest.

If one hasn’t had the pleasure of eating a matsutske, it’s prized for its aroma — a cinnamon-spicy-cedar combination that’s hard to describe. Young mushrooms picked before the veil that covers the gills breaks open are the most cherished, and typically have the strongest flavor.

If picking wild mushrooms isn’t your thing, keep your eyes peeled when dining out in the Flathead Valley, where local chefs have integrated their passion for wild foods and foraging into seasonal menus and nightly dinner specials, where nutrient-packed morsels procured in local mountain ranges and river bottoms make regular appearances.

Rules of the Hunt

Mushroom collecting on the Flathead National Forest can require a permit, depending on the area, and commercial harvesting is prohibited.

A personal-use permit is required for anyone collecting mushrooms in the 2015 Bear Creek and Trail Creek burned areas on the Spotted Bear Ranger District; and 2015 Glacier Rim, Sheep and Granite burned areas on the Hungry Horse/Glacier View Ranger District. Fees include $20 for 20 gallons; $40 for 40 gallons; $60 for 60 gallons; with a 60-gallon limit.

A free-use permit is required for anyone collecting between five and 20 gallons of mushrooms per season. There is a five-gallon per day possession limit.

The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes implemented a rule prohibiting non-tribal members from harvesting mushrooms in 2012. A tribal member may have non-member children and spouse accompany and assist with mushroom harvest, provided that the non-member children and spouse have the required recreation permits in their possession.

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