Mushroom Hunting: Frequently-Asked Questions

By Tom Nauman

Well, winter will soon arrive, and mushrooms will be scarce. I thought it would be a good time to review some questions some of you have asked about mushrooms and share the information with the other readers. So, here goes.

Q. Is it true that if you put a penny in the skillet with poisonous mushrooms, the penny will turn green? A. No, this is a myth. And, there are other equally unsafe myths concerning ways to tell if mushrooms are poisonous or edible. The only safe way to determine edibility of any mushroom is to own a field guide or two that not only shows what safe mushrooms look like, but also give detailed descriptions, characteristics and the differences between edible mushrooms and unsafe look-alikes. It is also helpful if you go mushrooming with someone familiar with the mushrooms you find. But remember, you could be putting your life in that persons hands.

Q. How can I tell a good morel from a false morel? A. There are three factors that are common to edible morel mushrooms. 1. The cap is sponge-like with pits and ridges. False morels caps appear sponge-like but when examined closely are more wrinkles and folds. 2. The cap and stem are connected to each other at the base of the cap. When you slice some varieties of false morels in half, the stem will go up into the cap and resemble the construction of an umbrella. 3. A true morel is always completely hollow. Some false morels are chambered, solid, or contain a cottony substance. Remember, a true morel will have all three properties. In other words, just because you found a hollow mushroom doesn't mean it's a morel. There is a member of the morel family that doesn't follow rule number three completely. It's the morchella semilibra or half-free morel. Check it in the field guides.

Q. Do morels grow just in Illinois? A. No, Morels are found all around the world with the heaviest concentrations at the 45 parallel in both hemispheres. Morels seem to grow more abundantly where there are four distinct seasons.

Q. How much time elapses from the moment a morel mushroom emerges from the ground until it is fully grown? A. Good question, and, I'll probably get some arguments on this. The growth rate of a morel is dependent upon several factors: temperature, moisture, nutrients in the soil, etc. If all conditions are perfect I believe a morel can be large enough to see, pick and enjoy within an hour or two. To be fully grown - I don't know. We have spotted small morels and watched them quadruple in size over the course of two weeks. Others have tripled in size in two days. And others have not increased in size at all. It's all contingent upon the factors mentioned above: temperature, moisture, and nutrients. Those tiny small gray morels you find early in the season could be left to grow. Most of us won't allow them to do that because we're afraid someone else will discover them before we return. I won't argue with that logic either.

Q. Have they figured out to grow morels indoors? A. Yes, and I plan a complete column on that subject soon so I won't go into great detail here. Dr. Ron Ower discover the process in the early 1980's. The technology was further developed and patented by Neogen Corporation. In the latter part of that decade and the beginning of the 90's, Dominoes Pizza became involved and constructed the first year-round morel farm in Mason, Michigan. By 1992, the new venture, named Morel Mountain was producing 500 pounds per week indoors year-round! The patent was then sold to Terry Farms and a new facility was constructed in Auburn, Alabama. It is my understanding that they are growing 5000 pounds per week.

Q. How successful are the morel garden kits? A. There are four or five morel growing kits available. We planted several a few years ago and are still awaiting results. I think our problem was that we planted them in August when we should have planted them in the spring. Logically, if you plant the spores in the spring you would be duplicating Mother Nature's methods and should have more success. The big difference in the type of kits currently on the market is whether they are spore based or mycelium based. The spore based has spores from morels encapsulated in a medium that provides the basic nutrients to begin the growth process. After one year the spores will produce the mycelium. The following year, the mycelium will produce morels. In the mycelium based kits the first year's growth process has already taken place and you could have morels growing the following season. And, of course, the mycelium based kits are more expensive. We plan on purchasing kits from all the suppliers this spring and hopefully will publish results in two years

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.

The new Morel Mania catalog is available. To get one, phone or mail your address to us. Or, they're available at our booth at Crafter's Marketplace at Glen and University in Peoria.

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.