Montana Mushrooms

Chanterelle Mushrooms, foraging

Foraging for Rocky Mountain treasure.

“Shall I not have intelligence with the earth? Am I not partly leaves and vegetable mould myself?” —Henry David Thoreau

Self-sufficiency, even in little ways, is satisfying. And when it comes to providing food, the fruits of one’s labors offer a tasty reward. Southwest Montana has ample opportunities for chasing wild game, but also for the meatless side of hunting: mushroom foraging. But you need to know which mushrooms are edible—not all fungi are safe. So, to help you in your quest for fresh, wild mushrooms, we’ve broken down some of the basics.

Essential Items
Pocket knife
Paper/mesh bag or basket
Experienced fellow forager (not essential, but recommended)
Field guides (bring several)

  • The Essential Guide to Rocky Mountain Mushrooms; Cathy Cripps
  • All That the Rain Promises and More; David Arora
  • Foraging the Mountain West: Gourmet Edible Plants, Mushrooms, and Meat; Thomas J. Elpel

Hide & Seek
Mushrooms can be found along trails, in burn zones, or right in your back yard. They are the fruiting body of a fungus, most of which is underground and invisible to the naked eye. Thus, mushrooms can have the illusion of appearing from nowhere, but remember, there’s an intricate web of mycelium attached. Viewed under a microscope, the white and fuzzy mycelium strands look like cobwebs, and it’s important to keep them intact because damaging these structures harms the entire organism, while taking only the mushroom does not.

Know Your Prey
Mushrooms require warm ground temperatures and moisture to grow. Southwest Montana yields an assortment of edible mushrooms, but morels and chanterelles are the most popular, and among the easiest to safely identify.

Black Morels grow near conifer trees at higher elevations. They usually sprout in May and June, due to their need for a warm and wet climate. They can also sprout prolifically in wildfire burn scars one to two years after a fire. “Burn morels,” as they’re commonly called, tend to pop up earlier in season, because they’re not shaded by a live forest. Late April through May is a good time to seek out burn morels.

Yellow Morels grow at lower elevations, in areas with cottonwood trees, and frequently near stream banks. Start looking for these when the lilacs begin to bloom.

Chanterelles are vibrant mushrooms that range in color from yellow to gold to rust brown. Regardless, their fruiting bodies rarely protrude through the forest duff, so finding them typically requires the forager to crawl on hands and knees, looking for small disturbances to the soil. They grow in mid- to high-elevation lodgepole pine or spruce forests, from July through September.

Morel mushrooms, foraging

Dos & Don’ts
Do as little harm as possible. Tread lightly and slice the mushroom just above its base to avoid damaging the mycelium.
Don’t yank the mushroom from the ground or pinch it off with your fingers.

Do use a mesh bag or basket when foraging.
Don’t place all your mushrooms in a sealed container or plastic bag.

Do optimize your senses. Touch, smell, and sight are all part of the mushroom-identification process.
Don’t rely on taste. Just because it tastes good, doesn’t mean it’s edible.

Do take only what you need. Leave some mushrooms for other foragers, and some to spread spores.
Don’t be greedy and take every single mushroom you find.

Pro Tip
by Cedar Mathers-Winn, Montana Outdoor Science School
Get to know your local fungi and study the differences in similar-looking species. Species and toxicity vary by environment, and just because you’ve eaten a mushroom on the East Coast, doesn’t mean it’s edible on the West Coast. If you’re trying to identify a mushroom beyond its visible characteristics, pull a single mushroom right out of the ground. This will keep a little mycelium attached, which can help identify the species. Just don’t collect an entire meal’s worth this way. It’s also as important to know the edible types as it is the inedible ones. When identifying mushroom type, ask yourself this: what other species could I confuse this mushroom with, and what would they do to me? When in doubt, ask an experienced friend or seek out an expert in the Bozeman area. There are plenty of them around!