A bounty of morel mushrooms
With the mushroom season fast approaching, morel hunters from all over the country are watching the soil temperatures and precipitation. Usually, when soil temperatures reach around 55º F, the morels will begin to pop out of the soil. I have seen morels pop as early as March and as late as July, and sometimes a second season in August and September, though it has been my experience that the spring harvest is by far the most prosperous.
Understanding the life cycle of the morel mushroom still challenges modern mycologists. This is one mushroom that has proven difficult to cultivate outside of nature. Though modern science has had limited success in their efforts, the results simply do not compare to the quality found in nature. Therefore, we, as mushroom hunters, need to be sure to protect and assure the morel populations are not depleted. We can do this by observing a few simple measures.
The morel mushroom has thousands of tiny spores within the cone or head of the mushroom. These spores are carried by animals, insects, and by the wind to other areas and deposited on the ground. These spores will then grow into tomorrow’s morels.
The essential item that every morel hunter should carry is a mesh bag for collecting morels. Using a mesh bag allows air to pass through the bag as you walk. The air then evaporates any moisture or condensation that has settled on the morel mushrooms, and causes a cooling effect. The next and most appropriate reason to use a mesh bag is to help the morels propagate by allowing their spores to be dispersed as you walk through the forest collecting your bounty. Use an old onion or potato bag, as long as the mesh is along the bottom and side edges to allow more spores to be dispersed.
Fellow morel hunters have seen a decrease in the morel populations in some areas, compared to what they once observed in a particular area. This is believed to be caused by mushroom hunters using a plastic bag or other container that does not allow proper spore dispersal when harvesting mushrooms. Other reasons for a population decline may simply be the geography or specific minerals or nutrients for that particular area are not as conducive as they once were.
Let me share a few things that may help you to become more successful when hunting these morel mushrooms. The best areas to find morels are around fallen and rotting trees. There are several trees that morels seem to be consistently found within the vicinity. In the Midwest and throughout the south, some of the best areas are close to the forest edges, in groves of elms. Morels may be found in the low areas that retain ground moisture, but that do not contain standing water. They have been found on the sides of ravines that face a southward direction within forested areas. Around birch and aspen trees are other areas that morels favor. Morels have been harvested in areas that have been burned out by wildfires or old campfires. They enjoy a light tree canopy that allows moderate light through, and can be found next to shrub rows, as well as the forest edges, and just about anywhere. I have found lots of morels along railroad tracks through the Midwest, in fact these are some of the areas I scout to see if morels are up.
One thing I like to do after finding a few morels is to check the air flow patterns through the area to determine where spores may have deposited, based on the direction of air flow. Look around and identify any trees that are near or have fallen. Check to see if any other types of mushrooms are growing, and also try to note other plants or shrubbery and see if they are flowering, blossoming or their size and color. This will help you advance your knowledge in determining other areas that may yield a morel population. Using these methods, I have stumbled upon rich areas that otherwise may not have been checked.
Recognition and identification is essential in collecting these treasures from the forest. To identify and harvest this mushroom is fairly easy, after you are familiar with a few characteristics of the morel mushroom. The morel has a few varieties that are most common and referred to by mushroom hunters based on their color (grays, yellows, and blacks). Each morel variety springs up within several days of each other, and offering a longer window of opportunity to harvest. Next you need to be able to distinguish the cone or cap of the morel from other mushrooms. There is only one mushroom that is remotely close to the morel in appearance, but looks more like brain matter than the waffle type pattern of the morel, and that is called the false morel, which is poisonous. The morel mushroom will always have a hollow stem that is light in color. If you have any doubt whether the mushroom is a morel, then simply throw it out.
Once you have stumbled upon an area rich in morels, it’s time to get to work. When harvesting a morel mushroom, either pinch or cut the base of the mushroom, remove any soil, then place in your mesh bag. I like to try and leave any morels whose cap is smaller than my thumb, and return a few days later to harvest them, as they will usually double or triple in size. Remember to shake your mesh bag around these areas to deposit more spores.
When returning to your vehicle, do not place the fresh morels into your trunk or back window. Try to keep them in a shaded but well ventilated place. This will help them remain fresh for the ride home.
If you want more morel mushrooms and greater areas to hunt these elusive treasures, then I highly encourage you to use a mesh bag when collecting your morels, and sprinkle your favorite areas with the spores of your harvest. Following the advice of this article will help to ensure the future populations of these wonderful mushrooms. Morel hunting can be very rewarding and offers a good time for adults, teens, and small children alike to enjoy the outdoors.
After your harvest, be sure to invite a few friends over and cook them up some fresh morels as an appetizer to your favorite meal. The following is one of my favorite recipes for enjoying fresh morel mushrooms. Remember store bought morels will need to be re-hydrated prior to preparing.
Cast Iron Morels
½ pound fresh morels
1 tbsp. butter
1 tbsp. Olive oil
1 c. flour
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp pepper
Mix flour, salt and pepper together. Place eggs in a separate dish and beat well (for egg wash). Melt butter and olive oil in a cast iron skillet. Take your washed morels and add them to egg wash, then roll in seasoned flour and place in cast iron skillet. Reduce heat and repeat steps until skillet is full. Press gently to flatten morels with a fork or spatula. Turn when golden brown. Aside from morels simply sautéed or fried in butter, this recipe is most enjoyed with friends and family.
WARNING! When eating any wild edible for the first time it is wise to consume a small amount to minimize any allergic reaction. Morels for consumption must be clean and free of decay. This is done by soaking in brine (salt water) for several hours and rinsing prior to preparation.
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