Morels on the Mind
by Josh Palumbo, Forest Management Coordinator
I welcome you to The Nature Foundation at Wintergreen’s attempt to bring some nature and knowledge into your home. The Nine Minute Naturalist borrows from NPR’s lovely 90-Second Naturalist podcast. Since we all have a bit more time on our hands, the goal is to take something that is happening out in our environment and stimulate your brain for roughly nine minutes. Don’t let something as “minor” as a quarantine to keep you from learning. I hope you enjoy!
With so much time on our hands and so few places we can go, I would like to offer a suggestion…become a mushroom hunter! Mushroom hunters tend to be a secluded bunch great at social distancing. As the average daily temperatures begin to climb, my favorite mushroom to hunt is beginning to appear…the morel!
The common morel is a staple on the plates of mushroom connoisseurs around the globe. It begins to break the surface when the soil temperatures climb into the fifties. Without a handy soil thermometer, a good rule of thumb is when the fern fiddleheads begin to emerge and the leaves begin to break bud the morel season is upon us. At Wintergreen that usually means April 1- April 15 depending on your elevation. The season will last for approximately 3 weeks so the time is now to socially distance in a nearby wood.
The first tool in the mushroom hunter’s tool bag needs to be identification skills. The common morel has two important features to identify, the cap shape and whether the body is hollow. The cap shape is distinct and is attached directly to the stem. It is fairly uniformed with ridges and is pitted inwards. A true morel will be hollow inward from the tip of the cap to the bottom of the stem. The false morel is the only lookalike that you need to be wary of but luckily is distinctly different. The cap is more wavy, lobed and bulging and freely hangs off the stem. The inside is also not hollow, instead filled with cottony fibers.
Now that you have a knowledge base for identification, the next important thing is to know where to look for morels. There are a few rules of thumb to follow. First, seek disturbed areas. Fire and physical disruption to the soil tends to aid the morel crop. Second, know your tree species. Morels have a tendency to associate with yellow poplar, ash and hickory. Third, follow the sun. Look early in the year at areas that get longer periods of sunlight. South and southeast facing slopes will tend to have earlier morel growth. If you can find a yellow poplar grove facing south that has had recent disruption, you may just hit the morel jackpot.
So what do you do if you find morels? My recommendation when heading out into the woods looking for morels is to carry a sharp knife and a bag with holes such as a grape bag from the store. If you find a morel, cleanly slice the fruiting body from the stem near ground level. Put the prize in the bag and continue your search. Hopefully the spores from the morel will drop out of the bag as you walk randomly through the woods. When you get home the reward for your labor begins. I clean any debris and dunk the mushroom in a saltwater bath for about twenty minutes. I like to cut my morels lengthwise in half and fry them on medium heat in butter for 4-5 minutes. Sprinkle a bit of salt and pepper to taste and enjoy!
Becoming a mushroom hunter is a fun hobby but make sure you master the first skill of identification. Don’t go plopping random mushrooms into your mouth without mastering identification. Seek out more experienced mushroom experts for ID confirmation. Also, although a mushroom is edible, it doesn’t mean your stomach will agree to ingesting 10 whole morels. The first time you dine on this treat eat one and wait to see if your stomach will accept this offering before finishing the rest. Enjoy the process!