Let’s face it – this was one of the colder, snowier northeastern winters in recent memory. As much as I relish slapping on my cross-country skis and getting chased by my yelping dog through the winter woods, there comes a time when even the hardiest soul is ready for the dawn of spring. In one of my favorite childhood rituals, my father would take me into the woods each March as the ground began to thaw to search for signs of spring. From the sound of peepers peeping to the heady smell of maple sap boiling, today the sensory memories of early spring hit me with a heavy dose of nostalgia.
However, my father and I ignored a whole category of signs of spring: the arrival of the first fungi! Luckily for the forager, spring brings some of the most divinely savory and celebrated mushrooms of the year – the yellow, black, and half-free true Morchella morels – along with their pesky false morel relatives of the genera Verpa and Gyromitra.
In Ithaca there is still snow on the ground and I don’t expect to see the first true morels for a couple more weeks, but that didn’t stop me from keeping my eyes peeled and “pretending” to hunt them as I sauntered through the woods today. I didn’t find any morels, but I was rewarded with one of the earliest fungal harbingers of spring, standing out like a bloodstain against the snow. The scarlet cup (Sarcoscypha coccinea) bears no physical resemblance to the morel whatsoever, but in fact both mushrooms are spring-fruiting members of the Ascomycota. At a time when the forest is dominated by shades of brown and grey, these mushrooms stun the eye and appear positively unnatural with their brilliant crimson hue. There are scattered reports of people eating scarlet cups throughout history, but even after a long lapse in the foraging season I am not desperate enough to bite into what appears to be a toilet plunger dyed with Red 40.
The scarlet cup was not the only sign of spring I saw today. Skunk cabbage is emerging with the lithe delicacy of an orchid despite its noxious smell, and ramps are beginning to poke out of the forest duff to reveal their rapidly uncurling garlicky leaves. Unlike morels, which seem to pop up at their own convenience whenever and wherever they wish, the ramps are in a hurry. They must shoot up from their bulbs and get their annual photosynthesizing out of the way before the greedy canopy steals every last vestige of light. As woodland spring ephemerals, ramps are a testament to the way nature fills every available ecological niche.
If that doesn’t give you enough things to be excited about this Spring, here’s one more: I am teaching my first mushroom cultivation and foraging workshop of the year the weekend of May 6-8, at Shining Sun Earth Renewal Center near Brattleboro, Vermont. In addition to inoculating logs with shiitake and lion’s mane spawn and planting a mushroom garden bed, we will try our luck on a morel, ramp, fiddlehead, and medicinal mushroom foray. For more information, see the Events page.