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Could the Marshall Fire lead to a mushroom boom?

Hey Denver, it’s Paul.

I learned a very interesting fact recently that led me down a rabbit hole of wildfire science, ecology, and mycology – and I ended up learning quite a bit about Colorado along the way, too. 

So, to quote my father-in-law’s current favorite joke, welcome to my TED talk.

A spore of intrigue

With psilocybin back in the news around the push for new regulations at the state level, I’ve been trying to learn more about mushrooms. And I was listening to a podcast about them when the host casually tossed off something fascinating: Morels, a highly sought-after and pricey variety of mushroom with a nutty, earthy flavor, are frequently found in the burn scars left by wildfires.

When I heard that, my mind started racing. Wouldn’t it be fun to grab a couple of microphones and go out into the Marshall Fire’s burn scar with a mushroom hunter and find a silver lining to a horrible tragedy? 


This is what a morel looks like. Yum! (Credit: Paul Starosta, Getty Images)

But is it true?

“The short answer is YES.” That’s what Jon Sommer, former president of the Colorado Mycological Society, told me when I emailed him about this.

He also told me that there is a “very strong” mushroom hunting community here in Colorado. His group alone has 850 active members, with nearly 22,000 more on Facebook, so if I wanted to go out to a burn scar and hunt for mushrooms, that could probably be arranged.

Another local mushroom hunter, Orion Aon of Forage Colorado, went into more detail: “Morels that grow in burn scars are generally called ‘burn morels.’ Most often, these are the morels you would see in fancy grocery stores and at restaurants,” Aon wrote. “They are technically part of the group known as ‘black morels,’ those morels that have a darker colored cap.”

Why does this happen?

“We still don’t fully understand the morel-wildfire interaction and why they fruit so heavily after a fire,” Aon wrote. “But it’s theorized that it could be a result of the burst of nutrients sent into the soil from the ash and dying plant materials, or because their host trees are now dead they have to move using spores to find a new living forest. Either way, the first year after a burn in a western forest it’s very likely that the morels will fruit.”

Wait a minute. This only happens in forests?

Unfortunately, yes. Both Aon and Sommer told me the Marshall Fire’s burn scar is unlikely to produce any morels because there weren’t enough of the right kind of trees in those parts of Louisville, Superior, and unincorporated Boulder County.

Sommer explained that morel growth depends on three main factors:

  • Moisture levels in the spring and summer after the fire
  • The intensity of the fire. Apparently if a fire burns too hot it can sterilize the soil
  • Tree variety. Some types, like conifers, are more conducive to morel growth

“A ‘good’ burn scar for morels would be one that was forested before the fire, and the more trees the better in most cases,” according to Aon. “Morels, and many other mushrooms, have mycorrhizal relationships with trees. Essentially, a symbiotic sharing of resources. Without the trees you won’t have the mycelium and thus won’t have the mushrooms.”

So if you’re willing to drive…

“The 2020 fires – Cameron, East Troublesome, etc. – were very good for morels last year, and should fruit again this year, though in lesser quantities,” according to Aon.

But competition for those precious morels is likely to be pretty hot again this year. “Because morels are very difficult to cultivate,” Aon wrote, “commercial pickers flock to last year’s burns to pick morels and sell them to suppliers, restaurants, etc.”

What’s an aspiring mushroom hunter to do?

Number one, don’t just go out looking for any old mushroom to eat. Everyone agrees that’s a surefire recipe for stomach pain, if not worse.

If you’re looking for inspiration before the mushroom season starts in April, the Colorado Mycological Society hosts a new guest speaker each month at the Denver Botanic Gardens between March and October. You can learn more about the CMS and see their full schedule here. Or join that Facebook group I mentioned here.

Aon Orion offers a variety of online and in-person classes ranging from a $20 introductory zoom session to a $500 full-day mushroom hunting expedition for you and four of your closest friends.

— Paul Karolyi, City Cast Denver Producer and a Really Fungi (sorry.)


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