Wow what a winter! It is like the children’s fairy tale “The Never Ending Story” instead we should call it “The Never Ending Winter.” To date, 93% of the Great Lakes are frozen and some say it is the coldest since the winter of 1977-78. Believe it or not, spring IS on its way. Hopefully this is the last week of below average temperatures. Since we at Nearby Nature are eternal optimists, we thought there was no better way to think about spring than to talk about Morels.
Before we discuss any article relating to mushrooms; we first must remind the readership that some mushrooms can kill you or make you really sick. We stress that when mushroom hunting only go with someone who is knowledgeable and can correctly identify what you find. That being said, let’s turn our attention to the morel.
Mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of certain fungi, the equivalent of an apple, peach, or orange. Fungi, including those which produce mushrooms, are not plants; they are related to molds, mildews, rusts, smuts, and yeasts. Mushrooms grow from spores. Spores are microscopically tiny. 2,500 typical mushroom spores lined up end-to-end would only form a line one inch long. These spores fall on a “substrate” or growing medium such as dead or decaying wood, organic material or just plain dirt. There they begin their complex life cycle. With over 10,000 mushroom species in North America, 50% are inedible, 25% experts call edible/tasteless, 20% will make you sick, 1% will kill you, and only about 4% are what experts call edible/excellent. That is where the morel stakes its claim. This mushroom is prized by mushroom hunters who go to great lengths to keep their “patch” a secret. Morels are distributed across North America, with the exception of the desert southwest and the southern coastal regions. Fortunately for us, the Great Lakes region seems to be the Mecca for morel hunters in North America due to the roller coaster temperature swings.
“Life begins when the season starts” is the mantra of serious morel hunters. The morel season for most of the United States typically runs from early-to-mid April on through mid-June. Many of us have heard the conventional wisdom that morel season occurs when white oak leaves are the size of a squirrel’s ear, or when May Apple or Spring Beauty flower. Obviously the season is dependent on local geography and weather conditions. Serious morel hunters consult various web sites and message boards to see what is happening in their area once the snow melts.
The Morchellaceae family includes true morels or “sponge mushrooms” members of the genus Morchella, the verpas members of the genus Verpa, and the cup fungi in the genus Disciotis. Due to the fact that there are so many different species, mycologists, (people who study and identify mushrooms) use the Latin or scientific names almost exclusively. Amateur mycologists soon learn that using “common” names for mushrooms is a tricky business, as each field guide seems to have its own set of “common” names. This can get very confusing but it is very important to use the Latin or scientific name because a wrong identification can result in a trip to the hospital or worse. Here is a list of various “morels”: yellow, white, black, gray, half free, early (poisonous), wrinkled thimble, thimble, thick-footed, and bell. Not to mention the false morels (Gyromitra) such as brain mushrooms, elephant ears, lorchels, and beefsteak. See what I mean. The yellow Morchella esculenta and black Morchella elata morels are what morel hunters covet the most.
Morels are found frequently under or around dead and dying elm trees, old overgrown apple orchards where the trees are mostly dead or dying, and big healthy ash or tulip trees. They’re especially abundant in areas where there is exposed limestone. In some areas they are found with pine, cottonwood, poplar, oak or any number of other trees. The most incredible “fruiting” occur the spring following a forest fire where large stands of timber burned. And yes people have been known to intentionally start their woods on fire for this very reason. It truly can be a hit and miss adventure at times. Not every “potential “site you cross will have morels around it so don’t get discouraged. Depending on your region, you may have to look harder than others.
The fact that morels fruit only in the springtime adds to their popularity and mystique. Everybody has his or her favorite receipt for morels. No matter how they are used, make sure they are prepared correctly. Improper cooking of some types of morels can lead to illness. What better way to get outside and celebrate the warmer weather than to look for this culinary delight. So as the days warm up, go out to see if you can find these tasty delights.
If you do, keep it a secret so you can enjoy them year after year!