By Tom Nauman
I have competed in the National Morel Mushroom Hunting Championship held in Boyne City, Michigan each of the last five years. And while I don't consider myself a mushroom expert, I do think I qualify as a superior morel hunter. While I've never been skunked at the National, the most I've ever found in the 90 minute time limit is 17. The qualifiers usually find several hundred. The reason is that the woods and mushrooms are different in Michigan.
To begin with, the mushrooms found are usually the black morel (morchella angusticeps or morchella elata). There are many good morel hunters in Central Illinois that have never seen a black morel or, if they have, didn't know that it was a morel. They are not as common as the greys or yellows, they don't grow as much in groups, and they don't seem to have as much of a relationship to dead elms. Additionally, those of us that were taught by family members would recognize only the morelswe were taught about. If our teachers didn't know about the black morels, chances are we don't either.
The black morel does grow abundantly in Illinois, but do not seem to be as plentiful as the others. They also appear earlier - by as much as two weeks. Don't confuse them with the spearpoints (morchella semilibera). The black morel is similar in size and shape to the more common greys but usually are more pointed at the top. When they first emerge from the ground they are pinkish, then turn to light brown, dark brown, black ridges with brown pits, and finally all black with a cream colored stem. Remember, the three distinguishing characteristics of a true edible morel are: pits and ridges on the cap, completely hollow (both cap and stem), and the cap is connected to the stem at the base of the cap. It's the coloration that makes the black morel difficult for me to find. Because I look for the familiar gray or yellow pattern when in the woods. I understand that when hunting black morels it's easier to search for the shape. From a distance they look like miniature Christmas Trees.
The National Championship is held the weekend after Mother's Day which is usually the peak of the black morel season, but it's just the beginning of the grey morel season in Northern Michigan. Three year's ago, after a fruitless hour of mushroom hunting, I spied a welcome sight. It was a huge elm. Some of the bark was lying on the ground. And the bare wood exposed was a reddish brown. It was a dead elm that in Illinois would make any mushroom hunter stop in their tracks. As I neared it, two other hunters walked within twenty feet of it and didn't give it a second look (they must have been from Michigan). In Michigan, the tree of choice is the Popel or White Ash. The qualifiers that year were suprised because most found their mushrooms (black morels) under Maple saplings. As I approached the tree I didn't immediately see any mushrooms of any variety. But that didn't deflate my expectations as it often takes two or three inspections before they are evident. After circling the tree several times I still didn't find any. I was so sure there should be mushrooms there, but maybe with the late season they just weren't up yet.
It was then that I decided that if they weren't springing up to greet me, I was going down to greet them! I carefully started peeling away the leaf layer and soon discovered four of the smallest grey morels I had ever seen. One was no bigger than a pencil eraser. Had it not been for my pride in not wanting to get skunked in The National Championship I probably would have left them grow for a week or two for someone else's dinner plate. As it was, I carefully cut them and proudly carried them back to the checkpoint for the official count.
Darin Huntoon of Elsie, Michigan won the National that year. The following year we invited him to compete in The Illinois Championship in Magnolia. I can't say enough about Darin's mushroom hunting expertise - he is one of the best. He has competed since being a teenager and comes from a family of 'shroomers that are among the nicest people on earth. Both of his parents have qualified at the National and I think Darin has qualified again at more recent competitions. But, I think Darin discovered what I had discovered - that mushrooms grow differently in different areas of the world. I know Darin was dissappointed that day. But, he really did quite well by finding about 70. There were a lot of Illinois mushroomers that came up empty handed. I think Darin discovered multiflora rose that day also! So if you head to a distant shroom patch, it's best to have a local give you some basics. Or, better yet, entice them to accompany you to their neck of the woods. But, don't forget the basics. If you see a dead elm that's in it's prime but doesn't have any mushrooms - accept dissappointment - or start digging!
The entry forms for the Third Annual Illinois State Morel Mushroom Hunting Championship on May 2 at Magnolia are in the mail. If you want one and are not on the mailing list, you can contact us at the phone number or address below. We'll try to keep a supply at our booth in Crafter's Marketplace in Peoria's Northwoods Mall. The deadline for registration is April 25 with a limit of 620 people (first come - first served). Walk-on entries will not be allowed
We do have a new hunting site this year and we'll be better prepared for rain with four huge tents in Magnolia. Again this year there will be a mushroom auction. Last year's auction saw hunters from all over the midwest bring in 440 lbs. only to have the rain stop the festivities with about 360 lbs. yet to be sold. So if you can't find enough for yourself, here's a way to increase your supply. Proceeds from the auction will go to Magnolia community projects.
Other mushroom festivals, locations, dates, and contacts are: Mid-America Morel Mushroom Festival, Jonesboro, IL, April 18 & 19, 800-248-4373; Mansfield, Indiana Mushroom Festival, April 25 & 26, 765-569-6847; National Championship & Festival, Boyne City, Michigan, May 15, 16, & 17, 616-582-6222; Muscoda, Wisconsin, May 16 & 17, 608-739-3770.
Remember, whenever you want to try eating a mushroom you're not familiar with, check it in at least two field guides. If they say it's edible, try just a nibble, wait 24 hours, and if there are no ill effects then consume larger amounts.
Please feel free to contact us with questions or comments. Especially if you have ideas or suggestions for future columns: Tom and Vicky Nauman, Morel Mania, RR1 - Box 42, Magnolia, IL 61336, Phone 309-364-3319, Fax 309-364-2960.