Morels

Morel Migration

Yellow morelAs 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!

Morel Miracle

I am here to tell you that morels really do exist. This may not sound like a mycological epiphany, and I am well aware that many of you flatlanders have been finding (and promptly devouring) morels for weeks now. Of course, I too have found plenty of morels in past seasons, and there was a time last spring when morels felt like a tangible, edible reality. But after an epic search that began prematurely with a hiccup of balmy weather in March, I was starting to wonder if the universe was playing a big trick on me. Do morels really exist, I began to question, or are they the pot of gold at the end of the proverbial rainbow, always just out of reach?

After innumerable hours staring at the ground in quiet desperation, I have finally found my treasure. It began as a typical morning, as Jenna, Judah, and I nonchalantly traipsed through the woods discussing the weather, work, our upcoming wedding, and other quotidian matters. I was listening to Jenna as she talked about the design project she is working on at the office, but I wasn’t looking at her. As always, I was looking at the ground, which is not nearly as charming or attractive as Jenna, but has the distinct advantage of harboring potential mushrooms. She has gotten used to my wandering eyes on our morning hikes, and kindly puts up with it. That is one of the many reasons why I am marrying her.

I made fleeting eye contact as I asked Jenna some questions about her job, and then the conversation inevitably turned to morels. “You know, the ground is finally starting to look quite moist,” I commented, fishing for approbation. I’m sure I sounded rather pathetic, like a teenager sprouting a few hairs telling his father, “You know Dad, my beard is really starting to take off!”

Jenna remained silent. Not quite getting the affirmation I needed to stay hopeful in my hunting, I continued:

“And with the warm weather, it really feels like the morels should be coming out any day now.” I have been making comments like this since March. Jenna nodded her head ever so slightly, as I began to wonder whether I’d ever have the pleasure of eating a morel again.

A collection of morels found this morning!

And then, in that most dire of moments, I had a revelation. And the revelation came in the form of a mushroom. It had a blonde, pitted cap, and it was hiding in the grass beneath a small clump of aspen. It wasn’t just any mushroom – it was a yellow morel. When I find a hefty hen of the woods in the fall, I am known to let out a reflexive yelp followed by a victory dance; when I find a morel, there is no room for such childlike revelry. I gazed down at my find in genuine disbelief, silent and solemn. The spring miracle I had prayed for had finally arrived.

Suddenly, a warm voice interrupted my revelry. “Ar, what’s going on?” Jenna asked. For the first time during the hike, we made sustained eye contact. When she saw my beaming smile, she knew exactly what was going on.

One lonely morel would’ve been more than enough, and initially it appeared that this yellow fellow was riding solo. But as I started to come to my senses, I noticed a second yellow huddling beneath a honeysuckle bush next to the aspen grove. Before either of us could muster any words, Jenna and I began scouring the area around the aspen trees, and came up with another eight yellows as well as a couple of rotting blacks. Though these morels were a welcome addition to our basket, nothing could compare to the mix of relief, awe, and exhilaration I felt when I discovered the first yellow. Well, perhaps one thing could . . . I hope to relive the entire experience tonight when dinnertime rolls around!

ForageCast: Game On!

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!

Praying For a Spring Miracle

Trout lilies in full bloom!

I’ve been spending quite a bit of time staring at the forest floor recently. My futile and often maddening pursuit of morels continues, as I find myself gazing relentlessly at the parched ground and praying for a spring miracle.

 I jinxed myself on the Ides of March, when the bizarrely warm bout of weather sent me into a foraging frenzy recounted in “The March of the Morel.” “Northeastern foragers, watch out – the mighty morel is marching your way at a staggering rate,” I proclaimed, noting that I anticipated fruitful hunting in Vermont by the first week of April “if the current weather pattern continues.”

Apparently that was a big “if,” as the daytime highs soon dropped from the 70s to the lower 40s and the rain decided to check out for a few weeks. With no snowmelt to speak of, this has made for a dry and morel-less early spring throughout much of the region. Small morel finds are starting to trickle in throughout southern New York and Connecticut, and rain is in the forecast for the weekend. There is still hope, but the roaring “March” I had hoped for did not come to pass.

A mayapple bursting up through the leaves.

Despite the dearth of morels, I have entertained myself (and annoyed my hiking partners) by scoping out potential host trees with the ferocity of a mama bird looking for a nesting site. “Check out this deliciously decrepit ash . . . and did you even notice the gangly old apple tree in the middle of that bramble patch?” 

My morel hunting has even yielded more tangible rewards. Last week I found a nice ramp patch and a few scarlet cups near the base of Hunger Mountain, only to find myself sloshing through a foot of wet snow an hour later as I ascended the peak.

Vermont’s fiddleheads also sprung into season this week, and I have been relishing the emerging fronds of the ostrich fern in all their spirally glory. Fiddleheads are only good eating when the fronds are still short and tightly coiled, so scour your nearby floodplains now to enjoy this ephemeral treat with a flavor reminiscent of asparagus and green beans. While you hunt for fiddleheads, keep an eye out for stinging nettles, a favorite spring tonic when cooked or enjoyed as tea. Vermont’s nettles are at a perfect stage for harvest – just be sure to wear gloves!

A trillium.

As my search for morels becomes increasingly frantic, I am striving to pause and remind myself of the life-affirming beauty of spring’s woodland wildflowers and herbs. One danger forager’s face is that we can become so myopically focused on the edible or medicinal value of the forest that we cease to appreciate the visual feast and simple sense of wonder in the landscape. With trilliums and trout lilies in full bloom and mayapple spears poking up out of the duff, spring is a beautiful time to be in the woods even if you don’t return home heavy with morels. Just watch out for the ugly underbelly of spring – mud, ticks, and allergies!

Waiting for Morels

Yellow morels from 2011.

The morels are teasing me again, flaunting their spongy faces and cooperating beautifully for foragers throughout much of the Midwest and Eastern Seaboard. Whether you’re from Mississippi or Michigan, chances are you are finding morels, and flooding my inbox with tongue-tickling photos of juicy blacks and yellows.

At first I tried to keep my cool. Since I am in Northern Vermont, reports of Missouri or Kentucky morels were not enough to send me into a frenzy, even when shroomers complained about “only” finding 47 morels.  

Soon, the morel sightings started to trickle northward – Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, oh my! Even this I could handle, though I must admit to getting a bit too excited by a piece of egg crate foam in a field near my house that momentarily resembled a baby morel.

Then, yesterday afternoon as I was sitting down for lunch, an email arrived with “early season black morels!!” in the subject line. I opened it, expecting yet another envy-inducing report of someone hitting a honey hole (shroomer parlance for an epic patch) in the wilds of southern Appalachia. But as I looked closer, I realized the morels were found at “an undisclosed location” near my former home of Ithaca, New York last Friday, March 23.

Sure, the fellow had just found a few small blacks, and Ithaca is over 100 miles south of Burlington, but the find hit too close to home for comfort. While it is highly unlikely that we will see morels in Vermont before mid-April, especially given the recent bout of colder weather, the Ithaca report flicked an irreversible switch in my brain.

After receiving the email, I couldn’t sit still, so I went for a stroll on Burlington’s picturesque waterfront bike path.  I stole a few quick glimpses of the sun-soaked Adirondack Mountains across Lake Champlain, but it took great willpower to pry my gaze from the ground. The cold, dry soil looked decidedly inhospitable to morels, but this did little to halt my hunting. Soon I started to grow dizzy and began questioning why I wasn’t just taking in the view and smiling like the rest of the recreationists on the bike path, but there was no turning back.

Watch out for the morel's poisonous look-alikes, including the beefsteak shown in this photo. Unlike the beefsteak, true morels should always have one continuous hollow cavity that extends from cap to stem.

I convinced myself my hunting was “productive” despite the remote odds of discovery – after all, I was scoping out good black morel trees and practicing using my forager’s eyes after their winter hiatus. Perhaps I was even getting a smidgen of exercise as I slowly paced around the trunks of massive cottonwoods, my neck craned and my gaze fierce. Still, I wondered how odd I must have looked to the bikers, joggers, roller skaters, and loping dogs that paraded by and tried not to stare at the lanky man slouched over on the side of the path.

To all these well-intentioned recreationists, don’t mind me. It may be a few more weeks until I find a morel, but one of these days you will see me walking home looking decidedly triumphant.

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