Mushroom Hunting: A False Alarm

By Tom Nauman

The headline was going to be "Fall Morels Found In Illinois". And, I must admit I was a little excited about the possibility of proving that it had happened. It was just two years ago that we first had confirmation from a qualified mycologist that morels had been discovered in Texas in November. But, this story struck much closer to home. Regular readers of this column may remember my comments at that time were that I thought fall morels in Illinois (or any midwestern state) were possible, but I hadn't been fortunate enough to witness the event yet. Was this my chance? Here's how it happened.

The package arrived from Leonard Pease of Tower Hill. The Pease family is legendary in their morel hunting endeavors, Leonard was the 1998 National Grand Champion and has won every major morel competition except the Illinois Championship which he has barred himself from for the past two years because he had hunted the chosen sites before and didn't want an unfair advantage. Siblings Bobby and Sandy are the men's and women's champions respectively for Illinois this year. Their brother Raymond has also gathered some trophies over the years. And we understand another brother, Calvin, stays home and kicks butt on the home patches while the rest of the family is away at competitions.

In the package was a copy of the Shelbyville Daily Union from Thursday, November 2, 2000. At the bottom of the front page was a picture of what appeared at first glance to be eight morel mushrooms. The caption said they were found by "Bun" Reynolds this week near his home in Shelbyville. Understand that the newspaper didn't actually call them morels, only that they appeared to be morels. Upon closer inspection of the picture seven of the mushrooms had characteristics of either verpa bohemica (one of the false morels found in the spring, but not near Shelbyville) or dictyophora duplicata (some field guides call it phallus impudicus) or a close relative in the stinkhorn family, which are a late summer/fall mushroom). One of the mushrooms (second from the left if you've seen the picture) really did appear to be a morel.

A hurried email was sent to the general manager of the newspaper asking for his help in in either proving or disproving the "morel" mushrooms in the picture. A phone call was then made to Leonard, who also thinks that fall morels, in theory, are possible. Leonard hadn't been able to inspect the actual mushrooms but agreed that at least one of the mushrooms certainly looked to be a morel. The next call went to Bun Reynolds. Bun said he no longer had the mushrooms, but he was reasonably sure they were not morels. To begin with, they had a terrible aroma. Secondly, the stem actually protruded out of the top of the cap. The picture was taken at an angle that didn't show the top of the mushroom caps. And thirdly, the mushrooms didn't have a "root structure" of their own because the grew out a sack-like structure in the ground.

All three characteristics are compatible with the stinkhorn family of mushrooms. The stinkhorn normally has a gooey slime covering the cap that has the odor of rotting meat. Flies and beetles are attracted to the odor and help propagate the species because the slime contains the spores of the mushroom. It is very similar to the pollination process except that the spores merely fall or are brushed off the flies and beetles anywhere rather than when it is visiting another flower. The slime of the stinkhorn will rinse off in a rainstorm and the mushroom cap that is left has a pattern very similar to a morel.

So the headline will have to wait. We still don't have proof that fall morels can grow in the midwest. If you ever think you have proof, call me first. And the proof has to be more than "a cousin of a friend of my uncle's brother-in-law found some". I actually want to see them before they are picked.

Incidentally, Bun Reynolds told me he didn't eat the mushrooms. I don't know if I would have either. One of the field guides I refer to say the are edible, three say they are edible in the "egg-stage" only, one of those say they are a delicasy in China when in the egg-stage, and yet another infers they are poisonous. Next month I think we'll discuss differences in field guides.

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 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,