By Tom Nauman
My father had six sons (I'm number four). Five of us Nauman boys are avid motorcycle enthusiasts and three of us still call Central Illinois home. Of the three, Larry and Dave both have late model Honda 750 Shadows while my steed is an ancient 1981 Kawasaki KZ1100A. I bought it when it was new. The paint is faded from blue to purple, the seat is torn, it's needed a new exhaust system for the past ten years, and when we ride I'm asked to be at the tail end of the group because they don't want to "eat my rust". Someday, when the budget allows, I'll restore it rather than replace it because I've not seen any ride made since then that I like as much as this one. And it still goes faster than my reaction time so why tempt fate? Had I known it would last this long, I would have taken better care of it.
Cruising in the summer and fall, is one of our favorite pastimes. Winter in not practical and spring is impossible for me because of morel season. We simply take off with no particular place to go and no map needed. "Putting some wind in your hair" is one of the greatest stress reducers I know of.
I mention this because on these cruises this summer, I've noticed a extraordinary number of dying trees and 95% of them are elms (yes, we're back to discussing mushrooms). It is hard to drive a mile on any road in central Illinois that adjoins wooded areas without seeing four or five of them. In previous years, seeing one or two in a ten mile stretch would be the norm.
They're easy to spot and will be until autumn arrives and the leaves of all trees will begin to change color. But for now, most of the trees are green except the dying elms. The dying elms still have leaves but they are brown, shriveled, and sparse. So when I look at a wooded area, I see living trees of all kinds with green leaves; I see dead trees with no leaves and little or no bark; and I see dying trees with the bark still attached and brown, shriveled leaves. The dying elms are noticeable from quite a distance away.
I can tell they are elms because of the basic shape of the tree. It is hard to describe other than to say they are funnel or cone shaped. The secondary branches that grow from the trunk usually grow up at an angle. The shape is more conical or vase-like as opposed to columnar or spreading. These secondary branches and the branches that sprout from them rarely grow perpendicular to the trunk (horizontal to the
ground) like oak, maple, walnut, hickory, or ash. The shape of the dying elms is easier to notice since the leaves are shriveled and don't hide as much of the branches.
I've asked fellow mushroom hunters in other areas if they've noticed this phenomenon and all said no at first, but later some responded positively after having been alerted as to what to look for. The common factor seems to be the drought. I thought it possible that the trees were in a weakened condition before and the drought did them in completely.
I pondered keeping this information to myself, but the purpose of my writings is to be informative and I would be negligent if I didn’t share this with my loyal readers.
Then on August 6, while reading the News-Tribune from LaSalle, Illinois, my eyes were drawn to an article by Shelby Sebens. The headline read "Dead elm trees everywhere". I thought such a headline should have been typed in bold, capital letters; at least three inches tall; and closed with at least three exclamation points! The typesetter must not have been a mushroom hunter. This was big news! The article was based on an interview with Randy Timmons, Illinois Department of Natural Resources District Forester. Timmons noted that Dutch Elm disease has worsened as a result of the drought and high heat and that a lot of elms are dying this summer.
For you youngsters out there, when Dutch Elm disease first appeared in the 60’s and early 70’s and killed most of our ancient elms, we had unbelievable amounts of morels. It was the stuff legends are made of and those of us that witnessed it will pass stories of it on to several generations. In fact, it’s hard for us old-timers to discuss without getting all choked up. Anyway, I was relieved that what I had noticed wasn’t just my imagination and I was excited that I had noticed it first.
What does this mean to mushroom hunters? Most good morel hunters know that morels tend to emerge in the area around an elm tree that has died within the past one to possibly five years, but more so in the first one to two years. Why? The most logical explanation I've heard was from Dr. Michael Kuo of Eastern Illinois University. While speaking to mushroom hunters at the Spongy Fungi Festival. He mentioned that in the Pacific Northwest, morels tend to grow in areas that have experienced "ground trauma" such as fires or where the ground has been compacted by logging trucks. He went on to explain that morel growth near dead elms may also be related to trauma.
Basically, the organism (mycelium) that produces morels is underground and exists on nutrients from the living elm tree. It has co-existed with the elm tree's root system for years and maybe never sprouted a morel at all. When the elm starts to die, some part of the mycelium senses that it is losing its source of food. So, the organism sends out large quantities of morels (the reproductive mechanism) to produce spores for survival of the species. The death of the elm is the trauma that triggers morel growth.
With all the dying elms I've seen this summer, there should be a bumper crop of morels in the spring of 2006 if other conditions such as temperature, and moisture are correct. But, the time to find the dying elm is now because they are easily noticed. By next spring, without the brown, shriveled leaves, it will be harder to tell when the elm you're inspecting died. And again, there will be more morels around the trees that died this summer than those that died earlier.
Remember, you read it here first. Next spring, if you discover that I’ve helped you find a motherlode, let me know. And send some fresh ones to me too!
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.