Monsoon moisture means mushrooms.

They come in all shapes and sizes, big, small, pretty, ugly. Some are delicious, some are deadly.

From the time the rains arrive to when the hard freezes hit, is the time to go hunting for wild mushrooms in New Mexico. Most are found in wooded spots at higher elevations; areas around Taos and the Santa Fe Ski Basin are often rich in fungi. But mushrooms can be found in dryer, flatter lands, too.

That’s where Bob Chapman likes to explore. He said serious mycologists pay relatively little attention to the fungi that have adapted to live in dry environments and that’s the attraction for him.

“The chances of finding a fungus never before described by science is very high,” Chapman said.

Chapman became hooked decades ago when he spotted a “huge clump of mushrooms” under a cottonwood tree outside his apartment. He rushed out and bought a book so he could identify it.

“That became an addiction,” Chapman said.

Chapman isn’t interested in finding edible mushrooms. But many hunters eagerly seek out varieties that can be eaten, such as the oyster, chanterelle and boletus edulis, also called King Bolete or porcini. Those are usually found in New Mexico at elevations above 7,000 feet.

Catching the bug

Mushroom hunting is highly competitive in its own way. The earlier you’re out, the more likely you’ll find what’s popped up overnight. Hunters are often secretive about their most promising locations.

“It would be like asking a fisherman where do you go to catch your biggest fish,” said mushroom hunter Karen Denison of Santa Fe.

Another point for beginners to be aware of, mushroom hunting is not permitted in New Mexico state parks, said parks spokeswoman Christina Cordova.

Barbara Marigold caught the mushrooming bug about 15 years ago when she became curious about fungi on her northern New Mexico ranch. During the short New Mexico mushrooming season she scouts the wooded slopes at higher elevations almost daily.

Hot weather and lack of rain in July delayed the season this year, she said, but judging by the amount of fungi popping in the Santa Fe Ski Basin in mid-August, it looks promising.

When scouting, Marigold moves slowly under the trees, eyes scanning, looking for the dampest spots, patches of moss, the edges of streams. Once you train your eyes, you start seeing them everywhere; the reddish top of a boletus edulis peeping up from the forest floor, brown jelly-like wood ears prized in Asian cuisine clinging to a fallen branch.

The part of the mushroom you see is the fruiting body of the fungus, which produces the spores or seeds; the fungus itself is like tiny threads underground. Certain types have a special interrelationship with particular plants or trees and are found next to them.

Marigold uses a knife to pry mushrooms loose from their growing spots, then cuts off the base and scrapes away as much soil as possible. Her rule is “leave the dirt in the forest.” She puts those she plans to take with her in a wax paper bag. Plastic bags are a no-no because they make mushrooms sweat.

Huge variety

There are hundreds of varieties of mushrooms in New Mexico. Marigold points out some of the different characteristics; boletes are spongy under the cap, Hawk Wing mushrooms have a brown bumpy cap and underneath are what look like thousands of tiny teeth. The many varieties of russula have gills that crumble when you poke them.

She holds out a mushroom with a red spotted top, that looks like something from a Disney cartoon. It’s the highly toxic fly agaric or amanita muscaria.

The Latin names trip easily off her lips but there are many she can’t identify. Marigold always takes along her well-thumbed copy of David Arora’s book “All that the Rain Promises and More: A Hip Pocket Guide to Western Mushrooms.”

“It’s important to know which are edible and which will make you sick.” If you don’t like the smell of a mushroom, toss it, even if someone tells you it’s edible, she said.

Marigold recommends always going scouting with a buddy, and taking a whistle and compass or GPS device, for safety.

Marigold is a longtime member of the New Mexico Mycological Society, which meets most months at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History in Albuquerque and occasionally at the Loma Encantada Clubhouse at 360b Calle Colina, in Santa Fe.

The Mycological Society held its annual “foray” in Taos this weekend with field trips and talks by invited speakers Vera Stucky Evanson, author of “Mushrooms of Colorado and the Southern Rocky Mountains,” and Christian Schwarz of Santa Cruz, Calif., co-author of “Mushrooms of the Redwood Coast.”

Tips for beginners

Go mushroom hunting with someone who has local experience

Join a club such as the New Mexico Mycological Society, newmexicomyco.org

Buy and read a guidebook such as “All that the Rain Promises and More: a Hip Pocket Guide to Western Mushrooms” by David Arora

If you don’t like the smell of a mushroom, toss it, even if someone tells you it’s edible

Don’t put mushrooms you collect in plastic bags, they will sweat. Use wax paper or cloth. Put different types of mushrooms in different bags.

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©2016 the Albuquerque Journal (Albuquerque, N.M.)

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