By Tom Nauman
It's May. The Roons have returned. The first reports for morels from the Illinois were as follows: Southern IL - 3/20/01, near St. Louis - 4/4/01, Peoria - 4/10/01. As of 4/11/01 reports of sightings of morels have come in from twenty states. The furthest north are from Northern Indiana and Southern Michigan. When compared to Northern Illinois and Southern Wisconsin at the same latitude, I wonder if there is such a thing as "lake effect" morels. That is, does Lake Michigan change the climate enough to cause the mushrooms to arrive earlier on its east side? For a state-by-state listing of sightings, visit the website at http://www.morelmania.com/2Championship/index.html.
Don't forget the Illinois State Morel Mushroom Hunting Championship at Magnolia on May 4 & 5. Details may be found at http://www.morelmania.com/ismmhc.html If you have too many mushrooms or not enough, the auction begins at 2:00 p.m.
Reader Joshua Palmieri had several good questions for me to ponder this month. He writes, "Hello. I have a question about actually searching for morels. When we hunt for pheasant we drive a specific way, of course we are dealing with moving animals, but I'm wondering if there is a better way to search for other morels once you spotted some."
When I find the first morel in a given area I mark the spot by jabbing my hiking stick in the ground (and hang my bag from the stick so I don't lose track of the stick). From there I work outward in an increasing circle from the stick. Usually the first mushroom spotted is at the edge of a patch, so as more are found, I can tell which direction the patch is from the first one. I also notice the trees and try to guess which tree or trees is causing the mushroom to be there. The usual suspect is a dead elm - but not always the case. The patch is likely to be between where I planted the stick and the tree, or all around the tree. By doing this I can figure out the pattern of the growing area and also not search the same area twice. I do take a glance backward every so often to be sure there aren't some morels that were hidden when viewed from the other direction.
If I'm on a slope, I will move down the slope from the first mushroom because the mushrooms are easier to see if you're looking for them up the slope rather than down. Again, paying close attention as to which tree or vegetation may be causing the mushrooms to grow there.
Josh also asks, "From reading your articles I gather spores are transported by wind, seeding through mesh bags of pickers etc. But I'm wondering if there is a more likely chance of finding more by searching in certain patterns."
In the areas I'm most familiar with (Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Iowa, Ohio,Southern Wisconsin, Southern Michigan, Southern Minnesota) The yellow and grey morels have a relationship with dead elms and a few other trees. So I become a "tree hunter". That is basically moving from one suspect tree to the next. Once in a while I find a mushroom or two en route to the next tree, without a logical explanation as to what made it grow in that particular spot.
Hunting for the black morels is entirely different. They don't have as pronounced a relationship with the same trees that produce the greys and yellows. And they don't tend to grow in concentrated groups as much either. The trees in this case may be wild cherry, ash, and various members of the poplar family which are harder to spot than dead elms. So in the early season when black morels are more likely, I become an "area hunter".
That is, I map out the area visually and choose a distant point. Then I walk in a zig-zag pattern trying to cover the area. While looking for grey and yellow morels, my eyes are trained on finding the pit pattern. And I'm typically focused on the area less than 15 feet away. In searching for the black morels, I not looking for the pit pattern as they are so dark It is often hard to see the pattern even when you are right on top of them. For black morels I'm looking for the dark outline of the mushroom which is a Christmas tree shape, so my gaze is focused from the 10 to 20 feet plus area.
I've never pondered the wind direction carrying spores as I would have to know if, how hard, and in which direction the wind was blowing when the spores were released. But, gravity also plays a role in determining where the spores will land. So if I'm on a slope, it's another reason to move down the hill from the first find. Remember too, that the spores released this year won't produce results for a few years.
Another question, "Is it better to stay on paths or roam around? I've found the majority of mine the last few years I've been hunting close to pathways".
I've not noticed any greater fruiting near pathways as opposed to away from them. But I'll watch for it from now on. Two things may be happening. It's easier to walk on the pathways and even though I probably wouldn't walk on the path while hunting mushrooms, On the return trip out of the woods, if I've already searched the area, the path would probably be the route I would take with the mushrooms in the bag dropping spores the whole way.
The other possibility is that if it is a well used path, it might be traumatized ground which is a trigger for morels to grow, Similar to finding morels in the ruts left by logging machinery in the Pacific Northwest.
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. All past articles are available http://www.morelmania.com/5Mushrooms/index.html. 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, Tom@MorelMania.com.