For Michael Heim, founder of Ensō Farm & Forage, hunting has always been a way of life. A native of Omaha, Heim and his father spent every winter break hunting in western Nebraska. It wasn’t until he moved to Boulder ten years ago that his perspective on the sport began to shift- and take on a whole new meaning.
“I worked several jobs in the culinary sphere, and I was thinking a lot about sustainability. I kind of did a one-eighty and went vegan for a while. I was also doing all this thrifting, poking around in second-hand stores,” he remembers. “All of that naturally led to mushrooms.”
No, not those kinds of mushrooms. Heim is referring to the freshly foraged chanterelles, morels, and porcini that he saw being delivered by the bagful to the Boulder restaurants where he worked. Mushroom hunting, it turns out, was the natural intersection of his culinary interests, passion for sustainability, and—most fun of all—the thrill of the hunt.
Heim credits the Colorado Mycological Society for being a crucial resource during his early years as a mushroom enthusiast. Members of the society are able to attend free workshops, forays, and monthly meetings with other enthusiasts from around the Front Range, many of them like Heim—lay people with a passion for mycology. It wasn’t long before he was fully immersed in the world of fungi, apprenticing at a Boulder mushroom farm and leading cultivation workshops for culinary schools.
“Every year, more and more people are interested in foraging. I think maybe a lot of them really just want to understand where their food is coming from,” Heim explains. “As the demand for workshops and forays grew, I thought, ‘Hmm, why not make something fun out of this?’” He founded Ensō Farm and Forage in 2015, which teaches low-impact foraging, land stewardship, and a love for all things wild.
I met up with Michael on a hot June day, my four kids in tow. After a short slog through Boulder Canyon traffic, we were rewarded with a crisp, sunny mountain morning, a welcome relief from the heat. The cooler air seemed to pep up the kids as well, who were practically chomping at the bit to get exploring. After a quick safety talk from Michael, we loaded up our supplies and set out on our first foray. Heim pointed to the receding snowbanks around us.
“Do you remember a few months ago, when everything started to bloom back at home? That’s what’s going on right now in the mountains. Everything is just now waking up.”
Wide-eyed, the kids nodded and were quickly scouting for any emerging signs of life. Boggy ground squished beneath our feet as we ventured further into the woods in search of our prize: nutty brown porcini, which thrive in alpine environments. It wasn’t long until someone was squealing—a mushroom had been found! While the kids excitedly swarmed around, Heim demonstrated how to harvest and identify our specimen, a burnt orange, cup-shaped mushroom which sadly proved to be inedible. No matter—the kids were hooked. We hardly made it more than a few steps at a time from that point on, each new discovery no less exciting than the first. Watching the kids flip through field guides, chattering about mushroom characteristics and fumbling to pronounce Latin names, I couldn’t help but think back to the many hikes we’d done before as a family. How many times had we brushed past—or worse, stepped on—these tiny treasures? One thing was for certain—we’d never be so careless again!
Want to get in touch with your inner treasure hunter? Below, Heim shares his tips for a successful foray.
Use common sense when exploring the high country. Beware of ticks, snakes, mountain lions, bears, moose, and inclement weather. Always carry a map and compass, and don’t stray far from the trail. Make sure that others know where you’re going. Always take appropriate gear, a first aid kit, and enough food and water for your hike.
A mushroom must be metabolized for it to be poisonous. In other words, you have to eat and digest it before it can be harmful. Never eat a mushroom if you are not one hundred percent sure it is safe to eat. Never rely on a hunch!
Harvest less than 10% of what’s available—a wildcrafting standard. Use your judgment and always be gracious.
Bring a field guide and/or someone who knows what you’re looking for. Join a club and learn from your peers! Heim suggests:
Mushrooms of the Rocky Mountain Region by Vera Stucky Evenson
The Essential Guide to Rocky Mountain Mushrooms by Habitat by Cathy Cripps, Michael Kuo, & Vera Stucky Evenson
National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms by Gary Lincoff
Trees of the Rocky Mountains and Intermountain West by Olivia and George A. Petrides
Make sure you know where you’re going and whether or not you should be there. Get the proper permits and save yourself the headache of a summons or the pain of removing buckshot from your body (read: trespassing on private land).
Carry the right equipment. Heim carries an Opinel pocket knife for harvesting regular-sized mushrooms and a Buck 119 for larger specimens. Besides proper hiking gear, bring a canvas tote bag for harvesting, a camera, field guides, a jeweler’s loupe, any necessary permits, and most importantly—your sense of wonder.
Most forest mushrooms have a companion plant that they associate with. Heim tells new students that learning the trees and plants is just as important as learning the mushrooms. For example, porcini has a mycorrhizal relationship with the Englemann Spruce tree. In other words, these two species live together in the forests of the Rocky Mountains. So if you know where the spruce grows, then you have a head start on where porcini mushrooms will grow! There are many associations like this. Learn your trees and seasons, eat more mushrooms!
NOTE: There are lookalike mushrooms that can be poisonous. Please be cautious!
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