Thursday, April 8, 2010

LOOK FOR: Morels, Closely Guarded Secret of the Forest

Photo credit: The Natural Capital
We first learned about morels about ten years ago, when someone told us that she had a spot where she went to pick them -- but she wouldn't tell us where it was. We soon learned that morels are delicious mushrooms that come up year after year in the same place. And the location of each patch is a secret as closely guarded as if there were pure gold sprouting up on the forest floor.

Hard to mistake for anything else, morels are a great beginner's mushroom. There's just one catch: morels are really, really hard to see. For years, we looked during the last two weeks of April in all the places people said to look: in old apple orchards, by dead elm stumps, and under tuliptrees. Nothing. Until we went out with experienced mushroomers who were willing to share their morel spots. Suddenly, the forest floor was dotted with these gourmet delicacies.

Photo credit: Jason Riedy

The pocked brown surface of morels is perfectly camouflaged to mix in with crumpled dead leaves. Several times, I've sat down to take a break while mushrooming, only to have my new perspective reveal a morel in the exact patch of ground where I was just looking. After finding a few, your brain forms a search image, and they start standing out a little more from the background. Until then, hunting for morels can be painfully frustrating. It's important to remember that even if you don't find anything, you're walking in the woods. And it's spring.

The earthy flavor of morels is like nothing else -- and their value among those of us who hunt mushrooms is heightened by the fact that they're the first mushroom of any note to come up after a long, mostly mushroomless winter. They usually start to emerge when the ground gets up to around 50 degrees -- around the time that the redbuds are blooming. Around DC they peak in mid to late April.

There are several species of morel that are most common in the DC metro area, listed here in approximate order of when they come up:
Photo credit: Jason Means

  • Morchella semilibera (meaning semi-free) -- the bottom of the cap is not attached to the stem.
  • Morchella elata (meaning erect or exalted) -- known as black morel, because the cap is blacker than in other species.
  • Morchella esculenta (meaning edible) -- often called yellow morel; the cap color is beige to brown, but yellower than other species.
  • Morchella crassipes (meaning big foot) -- much larger than the other species.
  • Morchella deliciosa (meaning delicious) -- known as white morel because the ridges on the cap are whitish when young.
All five of these species are edible. But if you are going to try to eat morels that you collect yourself, you must learn what a poisonous "false morel" looks like. If you know what to look for, they're easy to tell from true morels. Most importantly, true morels are hollow, while false morels are cottony on the inside.

morel hunter
Photo credit: The Natural Capital
Go out with experienced mushroomers if you're just getting started. You'll be happy you did, not only for the help with identification, but also because they will generously take you to spots where they have found morels in the past. Look here for the Mycological Association of Washington's upcoming forays. Or sign up for Matt's wild edibles hike to Scott's Run on April 17, where we found dozens of morels last year.

But we're not going to tell you our favorite spot. Two years ago, at about this time, we found over 500 morels in one small patch of forest in the DC metropolitan area. This picture is your only clue of the location. The search is half the fun!

Have you found morels yet this spring? Let us know when you do! We checked our special spot on Wednesday and there was no sign of them yet, but they should be up soon.

In the wild: Look on the forest floor in stands of tuliptrees, especially under older trees. Keep looking. Go with someone who has found them before. Keep looking.

In your yard: There's a chance they might pop up if you have old elms or tulip poplars in your yard, but noone's figured out how to cultivate our east coast species. Until they do...keep looking.