Mushroom Hunting: Morel 101

By Tom Nauman

Okay, okay, I know I have been a little absent from these pages. If it were mushroom season, I'd have a good excuse. Speaking of mushroom season, it's soon upon us. It's that time of year that the words morel and mushroom are interchangeable. The rest of the year you have to use them together to be understood because there really are other mushrooms out there. But in April and May the morel is the only one that matters.

With that in mind, let's discuss morels. Morels are not plants nor are they animals. They get their own separate kindom. That being fungi. The kingdom of fungi includes molds, yeast, and mushrooms. Further classification leads us to the mushroom genus Morchella. The number of species of morels is still being discussed by the experts. Some say there are only three while others argue there may be as many as sixty. And my opinion is that as long as they're fryin in the pan, it doesn't matter.

Morels range in color from white to tan to black. Sizes vary from less than a quarter-inch to fourteen inches tall. What they all have in common can be narrowed down to three characteristics. One - they all have a spongelike or honeycombed cap with true pits and ridges rather than folds or creases. Two - when sliced in half, the cap and stem are completely hollow. The key word is "completely". Completely means that, other than the occasional sowbug or springtail (both are insects common to morels), the inside of a true morel is not chambered and does not have a cottony substance. Chambered or cottony interiors are indicative of some of the false morels. Three - The cap and stem are connected to each other at the base of the cap rather than up under the top of the cap. In other words, the cap of a true morel does not hang down over the stem. There is one exception to rule number three, but that's in your favor. If you follow the three rules, you can't go wrong.

Morels can be found anywhere, but most successful morel hunters know that morels have an association with dead elm trees. They may also be found near cottonwood trees or in old orchards. It is commonly believed that the morel should be cut or torn off above ground so the "root" structure is not damaged.

It is also believed that spores will continue to spread even after the mushroom is picked, So, if your using a plastic or paper sack you're not letting the spores regenerate your picking area. Mushrooms will also spoil faster in the airtight environment of the plastic bag. A basket works best, but the realist in me says that a basket is not really practical. Second-best is an open mesh bag. Morel Mania will soon have avalilable a mesh bag that we have been testing for the past five years. It is strong enough not to tear even in the thickest of multiflora rose. Let us know if you're interested and we'll advise you we they arrive.

Other items that we consider a necessity in the woods are a sturdy hiking stick, a compass, and a knife. If you grab a hiking stick from the forest floor, be sure to test it before your life depends on it. Any stick on the ground could possibly be rotten or have a weak spot or two.

Mushroom season also means mushroom festivals. Here's the list:

Mid-America Morel Mushroom Festival, April 17 & 18, Jonesboro, IL, 618-833-8697.

Mansfield, Indiana Mushroom Festival, April 24 & 25, 765-569-6847

Illinois State Morel Mushroom Hunting Championship and Spongy Fungi Festival, May 1, Magnolia, IL, 306-364-3319.

National Morel Mushroom Festival, May 15 & 16, Boyne City, MI, 616-582-6222

Muscoda, WI Mushroom Festival, May 15 & 16, 608-739-3770

We've heard rumors of festivals in Elba, MN and Salmon Arm, BC also but haven't heard anything definite yet

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.