Fantastic fungi

A cluster of mushrooms sprouts from a log in the woods near Trout Lake. [File photo]

When summer monsoon season arrives in the San Juans, it comes with valley-shaking thunder, mudslide-inducing downpours and those iconic afternoon rainbows.

It also soaks the meadows, forests and rocky terrain of the high country, coaxing out an incredible variety of mushrooms. In the gully bottoms, ringing the meadows and popping up from decaying logs are giant hawkswings, bright-white puffballs, orange coral mushrooms and the coveted culinary varieties of boletes and chanterelles.

The Telluride Mushroom Festival, which kicks off Thursday, will celebrate the fascinating and multi-faceted world of fungi this weekend with workshops, presentations, forays, meals, the one-of-a-kind Mushroom Festival parade and  more.

The festival sets out to explore all aspects of the fungal world — from delicious edible varieties to mind-altering entheogens, species prized for their medicinal qualities and the industrious varieties that can be used in environmental remediation.

But this year, new festival organizer Scott Koch wanted to put a special emphasis on people in the mycological world who work to make the world a better place with mushrooms. People who are improving technologies, pioneering methods and developing new ways of using mycelium to do things like detoxify polluted soils, purify water systems, create compost and control insect populations.

“I wanted to spend more time focusing on bringing into light some of the people who are really doing good work in the world as far as the environment is concerned,” Koch said. “These people who are doing this, a lot of them are under-recognized and underfunded. It’s a great opportunity for them.”

These are people like Tradd Cotter, who is working at his South Carolina mushroom farm and research center to develop biotextiles, new methods of oil myco-remediation, cultivation and even “mycobrews,” beer infused with medicinal mushroom extracts. Cotter will teach a Mycoremediation for Everyone workshop on Thursday and also help introduce a special batch of myco-beer Thursday evening at Smuggler Joe’s.

Or Ja Schindler of Fungi For the People, who will give a presentation on ways to work with fungi at home and at work to forge a more environmentally sound lifestyle. And Anna McHugh, who will talk about using mycelium for biofiltration.

Koch said the focus on remediation and environmental work is a great way to bring awareness to the amazing work that is going on in the world — and the huge potential of mycelium to have big impacts.

But as always, the Mushroom Festival goes well beyond the environmental side of fungi, and events include gourmet meals, chef cook-offs, movies screenings, presentations and the chance to go on forays with nationally recognized mushroom experts.

Kat Harrison, an ethnobotanist, artist, writer and photographer who researches the relationship between plants and animals, will give a talk about mushroom personification in art and legend. Mushroom guru Gary Lincoff will talk about six ways that mushrooms can save your life in his keynote address. The Wilkinson Public Library will host the popular ShroomFest cook-off, which will see local chefs whipping up mushroom delicacies in a friendly competition where the audience gets to sample the goods. Tom Volk will talk about what old wives tales and legends can tell us about mushrooms. Daniel Winkler will give a presentation on amazing mushrooms of the Amazon. And Curt Haney will talk about urban mushrooming.

New this year is an exclusive foray and private mushroom brunch at the Opus Hut above Ophir. Lincoff will lead guests on a morning foray followed by a trip to the hut, where they will be treated to a multi-course meal prepared by chef Lisa Dahl. This Mushroom Festival fundraising event will take place from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. and costs $285.

And, of course there is the Mushroom Festival Parade, an always-colorful procession of drummers and revelers clad in mushroom-inspired attire. The parade is Saturday at 5:30 p.m. on Colorado Avenue.

Koch said the Telluride region is the wettest spot in the state right now, so the mushroom community is excited to gather here.

“The gourmet species are popping up right now,” he said. “It’s happening.”

Koch, who has appeared at past festivals as a cultivation instructor, said he hopes to expand the festival’s reach so there are educational opportunities year-round.

Mushrooms are, after all, an endless source of fascination.

“I think mushrooms pique the curiosity of us from childhood to adulthood,” he said. “Because there is so little known about them, it kind of intrigues our human nature to explore them. They provide something to us that we don’t know about, and they pop up in the most unlikely places. To paraphrase Paul Stamets, they have a message for us and we need to understand that.”