My first mushroom foraging find of the year: a shiitake!

I was harvesting fiddleheads and nettles today when a big, fleshy mushroom near the forest’s edge popped into my peripheral vision. A morel? No, clearly not – it was growing on a rotting log and had a brown, frisbee-shaped cap. As I looked closer, I realized my first mushroom foraging food of the year was not a wild species at all – it was a shiitake!

Shiitake grows wild in parts of Asia, but it is only cultivated in North America. Somebody must have thrown an expired shiitake log into the woods, not knowing that the log still had some juice in it.

Well, that will probably be the only time I “find” shiitake while in foraging mode in the woods, but I can handle that – my logs reliably produce hefty crops of shiitake anyway. Shiitake is one of my favorite mushrooms, but at this time of the year I have only one mushroom on my mind: the morel.

The morel’s unreliability and tenacious resistance to cultivation have contributed to its mystique. I have heard scattered stories of people successfully cultivating black or yellow morels, but only last week did I hear a story backed by the considerable credibility of myco-visionary Paul Stamets. Stamets inoculated a nutrient-depleted patch of land with morel spawn last fall, and this April he experienced the near-miracle of bearing witness to over 100 plump morels fruiting. Stamets notes that, “It doesn’t always work, but when it does, it’s very exciting and very rewarding (and also very delicious!).”

Stamets’ preliminary success raises the question: would the morel still be so coveted if it could be tamed? Domestication of this capricious beast may spoil some of the early May magic, but one thing is certain – morels taste ridiculously good, period! Therefore, I heartily support Stamet’s efforts to grow morels, and you can rest assured that I’ll be experimenting with this technique myself come fall.

Alas, for now there is no hundred-strong flush of morels in my garden waiting to be harvested. This is the first ForageCast of the season. I knew it was time to begin the 2012 ForageCast when Vermont received long-overdue rain showers this week and temperatures climbed into the mid-50s. I still don’t expect yellows for at least a couple more weeks locally, and I’d be surprised even to find a black or half-free when I head off on a sunset foray in a couple hours. But it rained! And it was just the kind of rain that makes the mycelium happy – 48 hours of intermittent, but ample, showers.

Dryad’s saddle is now officially in season in Vermont and the rest of northern New England, and black morels are now officially in season throughout most of the rest of New England and the Midwest. Meanwhile, yellows are creeping their way into Pennsylvania and southern New York. Game on!

Northeastern ForageCast for the week of April 24, 2012!