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Foraging with Optimism

I am often asked by chefs and mushroom foraging enthusiasts what our seasons are like here. I usually laugh, then explain that I have very little idea. Yes, there are some patterns. Winter is cold. Spring is windy. Summer starts out hot and dry, and we look to the monsoon season for precipitation and relief, usually beginning sometime in early to mid July. One thing is for sure — without moisture, life struggles. And until rains fall, mushrooms exist only in our minds. The Mycelia laying in wait of sufficient precipitation to produce their fruiting bodies.

As many of our local friends know, monsoon activity has been quite disappointing in the high country this year. We had a promising start when spotty thunderstorms brought good, but inconsistent moisture to the region. In the patches where rain fell, some mushrooms were found but the relentless sun and high mountain winds quickly brought us back to the harsh, arid reality of Arizona. With all the usual spots on the San Francisco Peaks not producing, I knew that I would have to monitor and follow any rains that fell in the state in order to find mushrooms.

That is why I found myself heading out of Flagstaff last week to join Mike Dechter, President of the Arizona Mushroom Society, in the White Mountains for some foraging.

What a beautiful drive it was, dropping out of the Ponderosa pine forest and heading east through rugged desert, then creeping up in elevation to meet up again not only with the Ponderosa but more beautiful mixed conifers and an abundance of GREEN! It was all my eyes could see as I wound up switchbacks on my way to 9,000’ elevation. Once my vision adjusted to the vibrant verdant, I spotted wild raspberries, currants, and lupines with a color purple so brilliant it looked like they were dancing in the sunlight. I exhaled the mountain air, which though thin from the elevation felt fuller then at home in Flagstaff — thanks to the touch of moisture left by the recent monsoon.

We were able to find some mushrooms — my biggest score being several pounds of oysters sprouting from a decaying tree. (Stumps and fallen trees are dead but still provide vital habitat and resources for the forest ecosystem?) And, with the few fungi already found, the spiny currants caught my eye and attention. Their soft, matte green, lobed leaves and deep purple-blue fruits armed with spines were intriguing and slightly sadistic – how could such a sweet fruit be so spiny? Survival of the fittest (and in this case, sharpest) comes to mind, but many fruits are successful because animals eat and spread the seeds. I suppose these currants depend on some Spartan-like creature to consume them and disperse the seeds hidden inside the spines. I was able to enjoy a few of the fruits and found the taste to be worth the trouble.

Although the dream of finding a forest dripping with edible fungi wasn’t realized, it is true that, similar to life, these outings and journeys are more about the experience than the harvest. Every time I go out in the woods, I try to learn something, share something, and count my blessings. Life is abundant, and intoxicatingly sweet in spite of the spines.

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