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Coming from out of state to the high desert does have its advantages. The humidity is low, great for skin and breathing, and the dry air doesn’t soak you to the bones once winter storms roll around. But the arid climate does have its downfalls, particularly when it comes to harvesting and growing. A short season combined with pretty dry soil isn’t ideal for a lot of plants. Mushrooms in particular suffer, especially when you are used to wet areas and in a constant battle to keep them from growing where they don’t belong. Montana may surprise you though. A little more exploring might be necessary because once you figure out where the wet spots are and what time of year and climate to search in, there are a lot of mushrooms!
Montana Field Mushrooms, or Meadow Mushrooms
Montana has a variety of mushrooms that start sprouting in early spring and all the way into the winter sometimes, (Yes, they will still happily pop up in the snow!) but it really just depends on how much rain and snow melt happened that year.
Right now, at the beginning of fall with the extra rain, we are seeing Chanterelles like crazy, and even some oysters popping up still, but what we are identifying today are the Montana Field Mushrooms.
Montana Field Mushrooms, or Meadow Mushrooms as they are often referred to as, are a close relative to the good ole buttons you find in your local grocery store. They are cute and look quite a bit alike, but there are a few differences and a deadly lookalike that you need to watch out for.
Identifying Pink Gilled Meadow Mushrooms
Firstly, when searching the ground, look for little white to gray caps with an approximate cap width of 1-4 inches; stalk the length of about 1-2 inches, and stalk width of ¼–¾ inch. The caps can be curved like a little golf ball, or almost completely flat depending on how mature the mushrooms are. The caps range from smooth to possibly dry and fibrous looking. These mushrooms grow in a network, with their mycelium taking up “roots” underground and growing outwards as the years progress. Because they have a large growth, oftentimes you will find the buttons, the actual fruiting bodies of the mycelium, in clusters or rings.
Don't get too caught up on the growth patterns though, the underside is what you have to look at to identify these mushrooms. With gills ranging in color from light pink to dark gray, this is a pretty good indicator that you’ve come across the delicious Montana Meadow Mushroom.
Lookalikes to the Edible Montana Meadow Mushroom
Now, the problem with these is they have a lookalike, an Amanita that will kill the consumer if too much is ingested, and death by mushroom isn’t a fun one. Luckily, there are ways to ensure you’ve gotten the right fungus in your basket.
First off, the lookalike has white gills, so if you see that, just toss them right back on the ground. The little ones may have no gills showing. Slice them in half for inspection, you'll know pretty quick if it's suspect. Secondly, there is a thin veil that grows on Meadows, and even if it has disappeared, you’ll notice a distinct ring around the stalk where it was attached.
If these two signs are good, you are pretty safe to snatch them up and bring them home, but to be absolutely certain there is one final test, a spore print. If you are familiar with spore prints, rest assured this one isn’t a super difficult identifier. Amanitas, the lookalikes, will have a white spore print, whereas the meadow mushrooms have a dark one. It is a cut-and-dry test, you either have them or you don't!
If you are unsure how to perform a spore test, an easy and quick method is to take a white sheet of paper, tear off the stem, set the cap gills downwards on top, and put a glass over the top. The spores will drop rather quickly within a few hours and reveal their true colors.
Keep in mind that wild mushrooms in general can cause an upset stomach no matter how certain you are. Some people are more sensitive than others and may need time to adjust to wild fungi. Always try a small amount first, thoroughly cooked, and wait twenty-four hours. If you haven’t gotten sick, add them generously to your next meal!
Here is a nice little post with information on identifying and, more importantly, a recipe. We personally like to use them the same as the store-bought buttons. Although a little softer, they do come with a more flavorful palette. Easy to dry and keep for later, these can also be sauteed and frozen for later use. If you want to keep the extras for a few days, it always depends on the mushroom species, but a great way to store them is in a brown paper bag in the fridge. Keep in mind that mushrooms don’t last very long, 5 to 10 days if lucky, so go out prepared to cook a meal or preserve them for later!
Where in Montana to Hunt for Meadow Mushrooms
If you hadn’t already guessed it, these delicacies grow in none other than fields. Cow pastures and open stretches are popular places to search. This fact makes them a popular choice for those who aren’t up for a hike too. Popping up just about anywhere with open grassy areas, these may even be found in yards and parks.
Keep in mind that one issue with mushrooms is that they are like sponges, they soak up everything around, from heavy metals to toxic chemicals, they are earth's natural filters. Awesome in a sense, but beware of where you find yours from. Open fields and pastures are your best choice, city parks or your neighbor's lawn may have been sprayed with all forms of chemicals and, although the mushrooms don’t care, your system will. Unless you know for absolute certain that yours are growing open range, you may want to leave them to do their thing.
A quick guide to identifying popular Montana Mushrooms: https://fwp.mt.gov/binaries/content/assets/fwp/montana-outdoors/2021/mushrooms2.pdf