They seem to pop up almost overnight, their succulent fruiting bodies protruding above the forest floor. Although their life is short lived, throngs of probing Hoosiers anticipate this special time of year in hopes of cashing in on one of nature’s most heralded bounties. What I’m talking about are wild mushrooms, morels to be exact.
They go by names like yellows, grays and blacks which are referred to as the sponge variety. There are also snakeheads, elephant ears and puff balls. But by far it’s the morels gathering the most attention and with good reason, they are delicious. They are also the easiest to distinguish.
Instructions on how to find these tasty treats serve only as guidelines as there is no exact science. Talk to any dedicated mushroom hunter and you’ll quickly learn they all have their own technique and beliefs. Much like fishing and hunting, Mother Nature does not always cooperate. If it was as easy as buying them at the grocery it wouldn’t be near the fun or as exciting.
Few things compare to the thrill of poking through the woods with family and friends in search of these gourmet quality morsels. If you find one more than likely there are others nearby.
Conditions have to be perfect for morels to grow. Moisture, temperature and other factors dictate whether they will “pop” and when. Some years they will flourish in certain areas and some years they won’t. Have you ever gone to your favorite fishing hole with completely different results?
Those who pursue one of nature’s most succulent offerings run the gamut from occasional hunter to “morel maniac”. A true “maniac” can be found perusing woodlots daily during the roughly three-week long season. They are easy to spot as dirt normally encrusts itself under their fingernails and their arms covered with scratches.
Some “maniacs” may begin their search in southern states, where the season begins prior to the Hoosier state, eventually finishing up in Michigan. This way they can extend what is normally a three-week long season to nearly two months.
The exact date when the season begins is anyone’s guess, but most say the best time is “from tax day to the middle of May.” This year could be different because of our crazy Indiana weather. Since I am not a mycologist (mushroom scientist) I won’t even attempt to explain the scientific details of morel growth, mainly because I can’t. But here is a general rule of thumb before beginning your springtime search.
Wait until daytime temperatures climb into the sixties and fall no lower than the fifties at night. More specifically, a soil temperature of 53 degrees is the best time to begin your search. Many aficionados believe the best finds occur after a rainfall. Focus your search around stream beds, wooded areas, fallen timber that is beginning to decay and always look around briars, brambles and thick underbrush. Some avid hunters tell of their best finds coming from around elm, beech and older apple trees.
But sometimes they can grow in the most peculiar places. Several years back one local hunter found a huge yellow sponge growing near the back steps of his favorite watering hole. So I guess in essence you never know where you could find a nice morel.
One of the most important aspects of hunting wild mushrooms is what you carry them in. Take a woven mesh bag like the ones oranges, onions or potatoes are sold in. This is extremely important if you want to protect your resource. Morels reproduce through spores which shake loose as they are jostled about. So in essence you will be reseeding your favorite hunting area helping ensure future success.
Another useful item is your own “mushroom stick” to help push away weeds, limbs and tall grasses to get a better look at the forest floor. Some people will even crawl on their hands and knees. They believe this gives them a better perspective as sometimes wild mushrooms can be hard to spot. This is why this is a great activity to involve children. Their lower profile gives them a better advantage than taller adults.
Morels can be prepared many ways, the only limiting factor is your imagination or culinary skills. Some use them as a garnish. Others sauté them in butter, garlic and a dash of wine then serve over steak or toast. However, the most popular method is to simply bread and fry them in butter.
Without a doubt, morel mushrooms are one of nature’s most succulent offerings. It’s too bad they are only available for a brief period. They are fun to hunt and a great way for the family to spend time together. First timers should do a bit of research and become familiar with what you are looking for. There are other varieties of wild mushrooms that may somewhat resemble morels but are extremely poisonous. An experienced hunter knows the difference so always go with someone who has hunted in the past before striking out on your own. At the very least, show them your find so they can verify they are safe to eat. Always remember, all mushrooms are edible.
Some only once!