The Morel of the Story

My husband Mike and I got bit by the mushrooming bug while hiking near Mt. Adams in the Cascade Mountains of Washington State in the fall of 2010. On that epic trip, we had the good fortune of making the acquaintance of an experienced mushroom buyer who, free of charge, coached us on mushroom hunting and harvesting techniques and, most importantly, vetted our harvest for safe edibility. At the end of the day, we had several pounds of chanterelles, two large matsutakes, and a lovely little hedgehog. And then, we feasted.

“Bag of morels.” Inset: Actual morels in bag.
A bag of morels. Inset: Actual morels in bag.

Questing For Edibles—Safely
Over the next few years, Mike and I added to our store of knowledge about mushroom foraging in a variety of ways. We purchased several field guides, the most useful of which were:

• Arora, David. 1986. Mushrooms Demystified. Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, CA. 959 pp. (An encyclopedic reference.)

• Arora, David. 1991. All That the Rain Promises, and More…A Hip Pocket Guide to Western Mushrooms. Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, CA. 264 pp. (A handy mini-version of his large reference book.)

• Schwab, Alexander. 2006. Mushrooming Without Fear: The Beginner’s Guide to Collecting Safe and Delicious Mushrooms. Skyhorse Publishing, New York. 128 pp. (A stepwise approach to safe identification by a clever process of elimination. This approach eliminates many edible varieties, but ensures you will not eat anything that will hurt you.)

We attended lectures at a local university branch campus. We trolled websites such as http://morelhunters.com and http://www.mushroomthejournal.com. Finally, we joined the Puget Sound Mycological Society, the largest mushrooming society in the Pacific Northwest. This organization “encourages the research, education, cultivation, hunting, identification, and cooking of mushrooms.” They host lectures, organize field trips, and are a wealth of information.

Even with all of this preparation, we feel confident about only two mushroom types when we forage unaided by an expert: chanterelles and morels. The many chanterelles—both real and false—we harvested in our 2010 outing provided a good tutorial about that group. Morels, on the other hand, are a spring mushroom—they were not fruiting during our initial, autumnal mushrooming experience, so we began seeking them in earnest the following spring.

The Elusive, Delectable Morel
Why morels? Two primary reasons: they are delicious and they have an extremely unique appearance, making the likelihood of confusing a morel with a poisonous mushroom very small.

Morels belong to the genus Morchella, with most falling into three basic species or species groups: M. esculenta or yellow morel, M. deliciosa or white morel, and the M. elata or black morel group. More importantly, did I mention that they are delicious?

O'Neal's Morel of the Story 2 8-14
Harvesting a morel by cutting at the base.

But, alas, morels can also be very hard to find. For one thing, they blend into their surroundings more than many other culinary mushrooms, being the size, shape, and coloration of the very pinecones that litter the forest floor where they grow. Also, their mycelia (the vegetative portion of the fungus that produces the “fruiting body,” a.k.a., the mushroom) are short-lived, so you can’t reliably return to the same patch year after year and expect to find morels, unlike other mushrooms. As such, the information, misinformation, and mythology about morels are extensive.

Perhaps because of the difficulty of finding morels, there seems to be an unwritten rule among foragers: never, but NEVER share your successful harvest location(s). Which can be frustrating. We always hear about folks finding “bags of morels” or “five-gallon buckets of morels,” yet when we ask where, the replies are mumbled. WE won’t be that way, we vowed. WE will share our secrets with our friends.

Morels are said to thrive in previously burned areas, under cottonwood and alder trees (especially those along streambanks), and in fruit orchards adjacent to wooded areas. They are said to fruit just after the snow melts, about the time trillium flowers appear, and about four days after a good rain or snowmelt followed by a warm weather spike. So, for the past four spring seasons, Mike and I have headed out into the Blue Mountains to the southeast of us and the Cascade Mountains to the west, armed with downloaded maps of the previous year’s fires, seeking orchards and cottonwoods, alders and trillium.

Finding (and Not Finding) Our Quarry
In 2012, we found a morel. One. That’s right. One solitary morel. With four of us looking for an hour and a half, we found a total of one. That is probably almost impossible, but that’s what happened. (We figured that someone had picked the area clean and left this one as a “ha-ha.”) In 2011 and 2013, we found none. Finally, in 2014, we found enough of a harvest to top a steak: 7 beautiful morels. It took two 90-minute drives and a total of 3 hours’ or foraging, but we did it. Where, you ask?

We’re not telling.

Do you have stories about mushrooming or foraging for other wild edible plants?

 

 

 

 

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