Of Woods And Words: On A Morel Mission

Morel Mushrooms
Morel Mushrooms

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I suppose it all started when I heard that morel mushrooms are known to pop up in recently burned areas. For whatever reason, a couple years back, Andy and I got it into our heads that each spring, morel mushrooms lurk in the woods, just waiting to be found and eaten. Despite having absolutely no evidence that this conviction is, in any way, true, each spring we set out on a couple ill-fated mushroom scavenging hunts.

I suppose our lack of success shouldn’t come as a surprise. I know next to nothing about mushrooming and I’ve found serious mushroomers are a tight-lipped breed who are forthcoming only about the fact that morels “are out there” when you ask for some advice. For all my Googling and reference book reading, I can’t pin down what sort of habitat I should be poking through when searching for morels.

I’ve read that morels like spruce trees and poplar trees and sandy soil and burnt areas. Those parameters just really don’t narrow it down too much and I don’t have time to wander the entire Gunflint Trail forest in search of a mushroom that may or may not be there. The other day, I read that soil temperatures might be the best indicator for when morels come out in the spring, and for a moment I was poised to buy a soil thermometer, but it didn’t seem quite right.

Despite my frustration at never finding morels, I have to admit the mushrooms’ elusive nature is part of their mystique. While going about our morel hunting business in a more scientific, systematic way might boost success, I feel that getting so anal-retentive as to check the soil temperature before heading out into the woods might take some of the fun and suspense out of the whole ordeal.

I’ve heard tales of old-timers filling garbage bags with morels, but I remain unconvinced, even when I hear trustworthy sources tell of their morel finds along the Gunflint Trail. When out mushrooming, we never fail to stumble upon plenty of false morel mushrooms, which look like shrunken, amber-colored brains, but these faux morels are apparently no indicator of the real deal. As I stumble through the woods, my eyes downcast, I have to wonder: Is this all a futile waste of time?

After all, I don’t even know what morel mushrooms taste like. The only time I’ve seen morel mushrooms “in the flesh,” so to speak, was in Seattle’s Pike Place Market, and at something to the tune of $40 a pound, I wasn’t willing to shell out the necessary cash to give these supposedly delicious mushrooms a try.

But the thing about heading out in the woods with a specific purpose in mind is that you can’t help but stumble upon all sorts of other fascinating finds. Every spring, under the pretext of mushrooming, I find bright red wintergreen berries poking up through the undergrowth, spruce trees putting on their summer pinecones and the first violets of the year. Usually, our morel missions are little more than blueberry reconnaissance, scoping out this summer’s picking hot spots.
That’s not to say I wouldn’t mind finding a morel or two this spring and I know I’m not alone. Last fall I commiserated with a family friend about our equally fruitless morel mushrooming.

“I’ll be sure to tell you if I find some this spring,” I promised.

“Yeah right,” he laughed.

If I find the elusive morel mushroom out in these here woods, I’ll let you know. But don’t bother asking for specifics. A true mushroomer never tells all.

Airdate: May 11, 2011

Photo courtesy of dano272 via Flickr.

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