During these times of social distancing, skulking the nearby woodlands in search of wily morels may be the perfect outdoor endeavor.
Springtime mushroomers are already seasonally anti-social loners—sneaky, secretive and more than a little paranoid.
I know—I’m one of ‘em! Companionship afield on a mushroom hunt is not part of the game-plan equation. We reclusive seekers of mycological treasure would sooner share our banking pen numbers than reveal a productive foraging location.
Come spring, as the weather warms, birds begin to sing, and the world magically transforms from gray-brown to verdant green, my thoughts regularly turn to morels.
Yes, this is also prime-time for local fishing action—which can lead to the occasional quandary. But being Ohio, weather and water conditions frequently wreak havoc with angling plans. Plus there’s also no rule that says you can’t interrupt a day of smallmouth waltzing to spend an hour or so scouring a streamside woods for morels.
Backwoods foragers, urban gourmets, and mushroom connoisseurs of all stripes almost unanimously consider the morel to be the most delicious of wild mushrooms. When gently rinsed and patted dry, sliced lengthwise, dusted with salted flour, and sautéed in real butter until golden brown—morels are simply exquisite. Delicate, distinctive, delicious!
But available for the plucking only during a few brief weeks each spring—usually between the middle of April and the first weeks of May. And never in numbers sufficient to satisfy our insatiable cravings.
Morels are probably the most foolproof wild-growing mushroom when it comes to identification—as well as the safest to eat. It’s pretty hard mistaking a morel for any other species, even the so-called “false morel.”
Morels are quite distinctive. A tan, gray or golden-brown, fairly cone-shaped head situated atop a thick, hollow stem. This pitted cap looks almost exactly like a sponge—hence the morel’s other common name of “sponge mushroom.”
In the false morel, the cap is not pitted but wrinkled, as if a piece of material had been wadded into shape before being placed atop the stem.
If you’re still a bit hesitant about field identification, numerous guides to mushrooms are available. Two of my favorites are, “Mushrooms & Other Fungi of the Mid-Continental United States,” by Huffman, Tiffamy, and Knaphus, and “A Morel Hunter’s Companion,” by Nancy Smith Webber.
Incidentally, this last book will not only allay any identification doubts with excellent color photographs, but it will also introduce you to some mushroom hunting history and field lore, as well as suggest various recipes to help you prepare and savor your first batches of wild morels.
Beginning mushroomers invariably want to know the best place to go looking for a basket of morels. The more audacious blatantly ask for specific directions to a productive collecting spot.
This constitutes a major faux pas! Worse than asking a gung-ho bronzeback angler to specify the stream and stretch where he heads for bass. Such chutzpah will be met with stony silence and instant disdain.
Asking a mushroomer to reveal a hard-won hunting hotspot is an effrontery bordering on insolence. Most wouldn’t tell their mothers, wives, fishing buddies, or best friends. They’d lie straight-faced to their church pastor or parish priest.
Wheedling, whining, or attempting to lay a guilt trip on them won’t work because mushroomers have neither shame nor conscience. A felony-level threat might do the trick, providing you come across sufficiently menacing. But I’d say your best bet would be bribery—though it won’t be cheap!
Otherwise, I suggest beginning your morel quest by looking in open, rich woods. Search puckerbrush thickets, tangled meadow fencelines, and hill-country ravines so steep sided and narrow that no glimmer of direct sunlight ever penetrates. Pay special attention to areas around rotting stumps, dead trees, and patches emerging mayapple. Woodsy, south-facing slopes are worth checking out. As are certain rural ditch-banks.
However, there are really no hard and fast rules regarding locations—no absolutes.
“Morels,” the old-timers will tell you, “are wherever you find ‘em.” Which is wiser council than you might initially imagine.
This spring, I’ve yet to find my first morel. But the season is just beginning, and many days have been cool and cloudy. A few sunny mornings will change everything—inspiring legions of tasty morels to suddenly emerge from their secret lairs.
So I repeat—social distancing is easy in the mushroom woods. And there’s no need to wear a mask!
Jim McGuire, a nature columnist, resides in Englewood, and can be reached at email@example.com.