Just about the time that trees are donning their emerald robes, another sure sign of spring pokes its way through the warming forest floor.
It might look like a piece of sponge, only it grows out of the ground.
It is one of the most sought-after natural foods—morel mushrooms.
An increasing number of outdoors people are saying that hunting morel mushrooms makes a pleasant companion activity to hunting spring gobblers and stalking trout.
Some old-timers might hike for miles to get a glimpse of a big batch of morels growing in the woods.
It struck me as a kind of “morel madness” when I observed some rural folk cooking up a mess of morels in my youth.
I remember asking one venerable matriarch of the hills what she was fixin’ for supper, and she promptly replied: “Molly moochers!” as she stirred the sponge-like creations in a skillet on an old wood-burning cook stove.
Since then, several veteran turkey hunters have told me they would rather scour the woodlands for mushrooms than pursue their finny prey in the streambeds on spring afternoons.
“Once you’ve tasted ‘em, you soon develop a cravin’ for ‘em,” one old gentleman informed me recently.
For a change of pace, let us focus for a moment on morel mushroom hunting, suddenly a keen interest among several outdoor people in our region.
Morels, according to mushroom guides, make up a genus or biological group of mushrooms called Morchela. There are several species, all of which are edible. Morels are sometimes called sponge mushrooms.
Morels, which grow from one to nine inches tall, are easy to identify. In fact, they are listed along with puffballs, shaggy manes, and sulfur shelf fungi as one of the “foolproof four.”
Only the poisonous false morels, which usually sprout in summer, resemble morels.
The cap of the true morel is attached to the stalk from top to bottom. There are no gills. The stalk and cap are completely hollow.
The pitted cap can be any color from buff to black. The stalk is usually off-white or some shade of light brown. This mushroom always grows out of the ground.
In general, the first morels to pop up are the tiny darker varieties. As the collecting season progresses, the morels get lighter in color and progressively larger. Later species are nearly white, and some specimens may stretch to nearly 10 inches.
False morels have a twisted, folded, or contorted shape, and do not really look anything like true morels. When they are sliced open, false morels have a cottony material inside. Once you have seen one, there is no mistake.
Old-timers say that the time to hunt morels is when the “oak leaves are as big as squirrel ears.”
This, of course, varies with latitude, narrowness of hollows, and whether the slope faces the spring sun or not.
Most mushroom guides that I have consulted all mention May as the magic month, but several local collectors mentioned late April as the time to start looking.
And though mushroom hunters might tell you when to look, they will almost never share the location of their hunting grounds.
Since most natural food fanciers consider morels the king of the mushrooms, specific locations are guarded secrets.
A collector offered to take me to one of her morel spots for photographs, but only if I went blindfolded.
Here are a few basics to get you pointed in the right direction. First, morels are much more common in sweet (non-acidic) limestone soil. But they are also quite common elsewhere.
Second, look for morels in bottom lands, and in woodlots with gentle slopes.
Morel growth has been keyed to an association with several trees. The mushrooms are often found growing near walnuts, in old apple orchards, and around dead elm trees. Other likely surroundings include burnt-over areas, stream banks, swamps, pastureland near water, and natural ravines with loose soil. Some find morels amid ferns and May-apples.
Biologists know that there is a connection between certain trees and the habitat requirements of morels, but the exact association is yet to be discovered.
Although hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent to grow morels commercially, all morels are still collected in the wild.
Morel hunting often requires the hands-and-knees approach.
After spotting one of the prizes, you might try getting your head down to mushroom level to aid in spotting others.
Work slowly and look closely, for the light and dark areas created by their pitted caps create a camouflage pattern that makes morels difficult to spot for the casual observer.
Collect morels by cutting off the stalk at the ground level.
Morels are easy to prepare for the table. Soak the mushrooms in cold water for an hour or so. This gives any six-legged critters time to vacate their homes. Cut each mushroom in half lengthwise or cut across the cap portion in much the same way that you might slice a carrot, making donut-shaped pieces about one inch thick.
Almost everyone’s favorite way of eating morels is sautéed in butter. After just a minute or two of frying in the hot butter, your treat is ready to eat.
Perhaps a word of caution, though, is in order here.
A high school science teacher informed me recently, “If you are not an experienced mushroom gatherer, don’t attempt to collect wild mushrooms to eat. Why take the chance when other mushroom varieties that are safe to eat are available at grocery stores everywhere? It’s not worth your life to take the risk of eating wild mushrooms unless you know what you’re doing.”
And oh yes. During gobbler season, wait until the afternoon before sneaking through the woods.
Top o’ the morning!