Mushrooms are one of those things that, aside from eating them, I hadn’t really given much thought to. Every once in a while along a trail I’ll notice a mushroom or two, maybe even take a picture. But on a recent hike, far above tree line, I was surprised to find mushrooms. And not just one kind, but several. This high altitude, rocky, exposed environment did not seem to be the optimal place for mushrooms to grow. As a rule, they like damp, dark environments such as a forest floor. Yet as always, there are exceptions. And, mushrooms can actually grow in a variety temperatures ranging from 40° to 90° F.

A little research reveals that mushrooms of all kinds are somewhat of an anomaly. Let’s start with the fact that they aren’t plants (and as a side note, should therefore not be referred to as a vegetable). Mushrooms do not contain chlorophyll and therefore cannot make their own food. Instead, they are thieves. They steal the carbohydrates they need from other plants. This is why they are usually found growing on trees or other plants, or in dead organic matter. Many of these types of mushrooms play an important role as decomposers. There are other types of mushrooms that have a symbiotic relationships with their plant host, without which neither would survive.

Mushrooms are fungi (another side note, not all fungi are mushrooms). The part of the mushroom we see growing above ground is the “fruit” or “flower” of the mushroom. This is the reproductive part that drops spores that will be dispersed by the wind. And what we see above ground is only one small fraction of these fungi. The rest is below ground and consists of hairlike threads called mycelium that can grow to cover hundreds of acres. In fact, the largest known living organism (by mass) on Earth is a fungus in Malheur National Forest in Oregon. It has been aptly named the Humongous Fungus and covers roughly 3.7 square miles.

My little venture into mycology has made me wonder about the soil in which the high-altitude mushrooms I saw were growing. Clearly the mushrooms were thriving, so there must be a lot more going on in the soil than I would’ve thought. And one last side note – apparently Colorado is a mushroom hotspot both above and below tree line, with between 2,000 and 3,000 different species living in the state!