Thursday, April 12, 2012

Morels in Illinois: first steps on the path to a new obsession

Morels in Illinois: first steps on the path to a new obsession

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The thing was only two inches tall but my heart leapt when I saw it, standing along the edge of a woodland path where I walked recently with my son. If I hadn’t already understood what I was looking at, its honeycombed, gray cap and tubular, cream-colored stem wouldn’t have impressed me. But I did know—it was a morel mushroom. I had seen them before when friends discovered them, but this was the first time I ever found one myself.

[Photos by author: that first morel (above) and a few more, found with the help of a mentor (below).]

Morels are such a passion for some people they would scarcely believe others could need an introduction. But if you, like me, have traveled outside such circles, let me offer this.

The name “morel” refers to mushrooms of the genus Morchella, and mushroom hunters in Illinois generally recognize three groups of them: “half-free,” which are named for the fact that the stem connects to the cap about halfway up its interior; “black,” for the darker ridges on the already dark cap of this one; and “yellow,” which really range in color from a tannish-yellow to gray.

Taxonomists put a finer point on things. According to Andy Miller, who is a mycologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey, a division of the Prairie Research Institute at the UI, DNA work has identified at least 26 separate species of black morels, and 16 or more species of yellow.

Among Illinois morels the most widely sought are the yellows, which can reach heights of eight to ten inches and weights of up to half a pound under the right conditions.

In a typical spring, the hunt for morels begins in southern Illinois around the first of April, when the black and half-frees emerge. That’s followed by the hunt for yellows, which begins a couple of weeks later, and continues through mid May. Also in a typical spring, morel hunting progresses north with the season, so Chicagoans don’t expect yellows until about the first week of May.

Of course, there has been nothing typical about this spring, and the morels have come out roughly four weeks early. That’s how I came to find my first morel (a yellow) on the last day of March.

Experienced morel hunters are frustratingly cagey when questioned by newbies about where a person might get started (e.g., “Well there’s this one place I could tell you about, but then I’d have to kill you.”) You need a woodland, though, one that allows collecting. In central Illinois, state-owned parks and recreation areas are your best bet, although it’s important to check site-specific regulations before you head out, since morel season overlaps with spring turkey hunting. (At dual-use sites the morning is given over to turkey hunting and the afternoon to morel gathering.)

Without mentioning locations, mycologist Andy Miller was willing to talk about how to focus the search, once a person is in the woods.

Moisture is essential for mushrooms to form, he pointed out, so you don’t want to spend your time looking where the soil is bone dry. And if you can get out in the days following a rain, that’s ideal.

Miller also suggested that beginning hunters learn to identify a few types of trees, since morels are found in association with some species more frequently than others. Nothing says “morel hotspot” like a dead American elm tree, and the ground surrounding live ash trees and tulip trees is also worth special attention.

Among the tips I’ve encountered for would-be morel hunters, two have proven to be the most useful. The first is to get a copy of the excellent book, “Edible Wild Mushrooms of Illinois and Surrounding States,” published by the University of Illinois Press. The second is to find a mentor; there’s no substitute for experience when it comes to locating things that can be so elusive, and there’s no room for error in identification when it comes to eating wild mushrooms of any sort.

A word of warning

Deadly poisonous mushrooms occur along with nonpoisonous ones throughout Illinois. Neither this article nor the accompanying photo is intended to enable beginners to distinguish between them.