As one of the season’s biggest winter storms prepares to slam Vermont, southern mushroom hunters are happily harvesting morels. MorelHunters.com is reporting finds throughout Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, and Kentucky. Hunters as far west as Oklahoma are also frying up morels as I sit by the woodstove awaiting another dumping of snow.
I love snowstorms and will certainly savor the tail end of what has been an epic winter in Vermont. But with April around the corner, morels are on my mind. I don’t expect to see any morels until at early May up in northern Vermont, but morel behavior consistently defies expectations.
Old-timers say to start hunting when the oak leaves are the size of a mouse’s ear in the spring. This method certainly is not scientific, but I’d say it is as good a guideline as any for when to begin looking for this capricious fruiter. Another good guideline is to begin hunting when the daytime highs in your area begin to hit 60 degrees Fahrenheit, and nighttime lows are at least 40. Even ideal temperatures will not produce morels unless there has been sufficient rainfall or snowmelt to moisten the soil. Morels do not like soggy soil – moderate moisture is enough to produce large flushes.
The hard part is finding those flushes, ensuring that your patches are kept private, and harvesting in the perfect window before the mushrooms rot or are devoured by slugs. Morel hunting often takes profound patience in the Northeast, especially if you are in new territory. Last spring I felt as though I had witnessed a miracle when I finally found ten yellows and a few bloated blacks after weeks of scouring local fields and forests.
Some Northeasterners are lucky enough to have access to old apple orchards sporadically bearing dozens, if not hundreds, of morels in springtime. Unfortunately, orchard morels pose risks of arsenic or lead poisoning – make sure you know the history of your orchard. Morels are a cosmopolitan species, as likely to pop up in suburbs or schoolyards as in the backcountry. Use your best judgment: as hard to resist as it may be, I cannot recommend eating a morel you find growing in the highway median.
If you are in the Midwest, you have it easy, comparatively speaking. Morels are still rare, their fruiting habits delicate and unpredictable. Yet, as opposed to baskets, seasoned Midwestern collectors bring home buckets brimming with morels. Midwestern flushes are simply bigger and bolder, at times rivaling the grandeur of classic burn morel patches out West.
Whether you are working the burns, walking the orchards, or scouring the ash groves, don’t forget safety. Morels have several poisonous look-alikes, including the beefsteak (Gyromitra esculenta) and wrinkled thimble cap (Verpa bohemica). We encourage you to join us on a spring foray, or to submit photos of your finds to The Mushroom Forager.
Before you know it, morels are going to be creeping into Pennsylvania. Stay tuned for the first installment of the 2013 ForageCast, keeping you up to date on what is popping up in the woods and wild corners near you!