The March of the Morel

Nothing beats the deep delight of finding a morel (or two!).

Northeastern foragers, watch out – the mighty morel is marching your way at a staggering rate! Morels are already fruiting in West Virginia and Ohio, and I expect them to arrive in southern Pennsylvania within the next week. This means morels should be fruiting two to three full weeks ahead of schedule throughout most of the region.

So what does this mean for our new state of residence, Vermont? The first morels typically fruit in southern Vermont the first week of May, arriving in Chittenden County about a week later.  This year, I will start looking for half free and black morels the first week of April if this current weather pattern continues. By the first week of May, I wouldn’t be surprised if blacks had come and gone and yellows were peaking throughout the Green Mountain State. My predictions do come with a disclaimer: morels fruit when and where they please. Just when you think you finally have a good grip on their fruiting habits, they may throw you for a loop. 

Found on May 2nd in Ithaca, NY, this black morel was my first find of 2011. Despite being further north, I expect to find the first black morel earlier this year.

Just because morels are arriving early this year does not necessarily mean foragers should expect a bumper crop. In fact, though I am certainly hoping for many a morel feast this spring, I am quite concerned about this season’s harvest.

Morels favor days with highs around 60 and lows in the lower 40s. We have already had a couple 60 degree days in Burlington, and next week’s forecast calls for temperatures hitting 80! Theoretically, a morel in a warmer Vermont microclimate could fruit any day now, but common sense says there is no way we will see morels in Vermont for at least another couple weeks.

By then, will local temperatures be too warm for morels to fruit altogether? Morel fruitings depend on a delicate and enigmatic balance of timing, temperature, nutrition, precipitation, and carbon dioxide levels, so it is easy to imagine this spring’s bizarre weather interfering with the 2012 crop.

Then again, the capricious nature of global warming may demand we throw all notions of “common sense” regarding seasonality out the window, so who knows? Perhaps a tiny morel primordia is already forming near the base of an old apple tree somewhere in the depths of Vermont.

Dreaming of Morels

Ari's first black morel of 2011

I am wandering through the spring woods, the soggy ground squishing beneath my feet.  Out of the corner of my eye, I spot the unmistakable honeycombed cap of a morel.  Bending down to take a closer look, I realize this morel is not alone. A second morel pops into my vision, followed by a third. My morel eyes are on now, and hundreds, perhaps thousands, begin to spring up as if to announce, “We are here!”

Suddenly, my reverie is interrupted. Like Miss Clavel from Madeline, I have a subtle but unmistakable feeling that, “Something is not right!” Within seconds, I am lying awake in bed, eons away from the holy grail of morels and sorely disappointed.

This recurring dream has been haunting me ever since the last of the snow melted in Ithaca. While the dream has yet to come true, I can finally say I feel satisfied. After weeks of tirelessly searching for morels, Monday around dusk I found a lone, juicy black morel when I was least expecting it. I don’t think a full second was able to pass before I let out a reflexive yelp, immediately followed by a howl. The mushroom was so pristine and beautiful that the idea of eating it sounded akin to consuming a rare orchid.

Ari gazes lovingly at his black morel

I could not help but wonder if my mind was playing tricks on me again, and I scanned the adjacent ground to check for the veritable flood of morels that had fooled me so many times in my dreams. For the first time in my life, I was relieved to see that there were no more mushrooms in sight, and I began to come to terms with the fact that this morel might be for real. Nervously, I plucked the mushroom out of the ground and raised it to my nose. The cool flesh, intricately webbed texture and earthy aroma confirmed that my find existed in the firm realm of consensual reality.

I did not come prepared with a mushroom collecting basket, so I unzipped my coat pocket and gingerly placed the morel inside.  I spent a few more minutes looking for morels to no avail; then, as the sky grew dark, I proudly marched back to my car, past a territorial mother Canada Goose who scowled at my barking dog. A few times on the walk back, I felt my pocket – just to make sure the morel was really there.

Morel Madness

A yellow morel from last spring

Today, like yesterday and the day before, I spent two long, desperate hours stalking morels (Morchella sp.), the first gourmet mushrooms to emerge each spring in most of North America. I have not yet heard any reports of morel sightings in Ithaca this spring, but the mere fact that morels theoretically could be out keeps me on the prowl. Mushroom hunters to the south and west of Ithaca have been luckier, filling their baskets since early April according to this 2011 sightings map from Morel Hunters, whose slogan is, “Where the hunters gather.” Morels have deservedly acquired a singular reputation amongst foragers and gourmands alike; there are millions of people throughout their wide American range who confidently harvest morels every spring, yet cannot identify any other local mushrooms.

Just don’t go around asking random mushroom hunters about the location of their morel patches. “No, I won’t tell you where they were found. Of course not! Morel spots are private,” wrote Cornell University mycologist Kathie Hodge – who holds an annual first morel contest in Ithaca – in an email to the campus mushroom listserv last spring. What makes morels drive people so crazy that many a friendship has been lost over them, and more than a few lives have been lost in their pursuit?

A half-free morel from last spring

Morels have a rich, woodsy, and gamey flavor, but in taste alone it is debatable whether they outshine porcinis, hen of the woods, or the more obscure yet divine black trumpet. Partly, morels have developed such a following because they are the first delicacy provided by the forest after the long, mushroom-less winter. It doesn’t hurt that all morels, from the black to the yellow to the early and almost as tasty half-free, have a bizarre and striking physical appearance that adds a bold statement to a dish. Watch out, though, as the false Gyromitra and Verpa morels share the true morels’ general spongy appearance!

Though in the right place at the right time morels can appear in profusion, their rarity and fleeting season make them all the more coveted. Indeed, the capricious, trickster quality of the morel keeps foragers on an endless quest for this charismatic harbinger of spring. While some mushrooms, such as hen of the woods, almost consistently fruit in the same locations every year while they remain alive, morels are notoriously fickle and picky about when and where they choose to show their spongy faces. In the Northeast in particular, morels are certainly out there, but they are few and far between.

After having spent more hours than I care to admit tirelessly and fruitlessly pursuing morels over the past week, I am starting to agree with visionary mycologist Paul Stamets that mushrooms have a pesky sense of humor.

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