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In early spring, my otherwise very normal friends become secretive--talking in code about places with names like “the outback”, “the mother lode”, and “snake hill”. They guard the location of these spots with the ferocity of a mother bear protecting her cub, because, you see, they are mushroom hunters. For over ten years I watched this behavior in my friends and dismissed mushroom hunters as an odd breed…until I joined them once…on the hunt for the mighty morel!
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on March 30, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)
Mushroom hunting is not to be taken lightly in any respect. Morels, among the most prized of wild mushrooms, are edible--quite tasty, in fact. Their size varies from under a quarter inch to over a foot and colors range from white to tan to black. The cap is honeycombed with pits and is continuous with the stalk. If you cut a morel lengthwise you will notice it is completely hollow and there is no division between the cap and stem. It is very important to be certain of the identity of your wild mushrooms as some types are poisonous.
Unless you live in a desert or deep southern coastal area, chances are good that morels can be found in your part of the country. They seem to be more abundant in areas with old orchards, dead or dying elm trees, and limestone. Their growing season typically runs from early-April through mid-June. In the small Midwest town where I live there's no question when the season has started. As you pump gas at the local station you'll overhear folks greeting one another with "Find any yet?" and when they hear that "the boys" found a few the night before they are off to the office, bank, or local garage with renewed energy to get the workday over so they can get to the woods and search out the fungal treasure!
After a decade of witnessing my middle-aged friends heading out to the woods with the exuberance of spring chickens my best friend determined that I "needed" to experience the thrill of the hunt. In the days leading up to our excursion much discussion took place as to what to wear (hat is absolutely required unless you want to transport little spideys and other friendly critters out of the woods in your hair), how fast to hit the ground if you hear a car (don't want passers-by seeing you and knowing where your "spot" is), and the fact that under no circumstances (not under threat to life and/or limb--and certainly not if one cares to maintain a lifelong friendship) is the location of the hunt to ever be divulged. Finally the day arrived and I showed up at the appointed time with the required hat, as well as a few little things I thought might come in handy: a bottle of water, sunglasses, cell phone, bags to bring home the booty, and my husband's knife...after all, you just never know what you may encounter in the wild. My packing list was all approved by the pros until we got to the knife. They had a good laugh over the fact that I felt the need to bring a weapon mushroom hunting.
We arrived at our destination, parked the vehicle, and headed for the woods. In just a couple of minutes the only obstacle between us and the hunt was a barbed wire fence. As my friend stepped across the fence her foot came down onto the most hateful thorn ever--straight up through the heel of her shoe and into her foot. Bleeding only slightly, her concern was how to remove the thorn so she could get the shoe back on. Admittedly, it wasn't a mountain lion with teeth bared or a crazy madman coming at us, but do you recall my theory that you just never know what you may encounter in the wild? Ah, yes, my mushroom hunting weapon saved the day...well, allowed us to dig the thorn out of my friend's shoe anyway. A short trek later we found ourselves in the woods and she told me to stand still and start looking. For several minutes I scanned the ground, seeing only leaves--lots and lots of leaves. Suddenly I zeroed in on it--about two inches tall and the most beautiful morel ever! We spread out a bit to cover more area and happily set about filling our bags. We were hunting close together again when I found one that was just laying on the ground; a few steps later there was another. I mentioned to my friend that it was odd to be finding mushrooms that had already been picked and she immediately told me to stop and check my bag. As a seasoned hunter she knew that I had snagged my plastic bag on something.
As I was wandering along feeling quite smug about my new-found skill I was also leaving behind a trail of mushrooms worthy of a Hansel & Gretel tale! She gently explained that this is one of the reasons a mesh bag is more desirable than plastic for mushroom hunting. Another advantage of mesh is that some of the little critters residing in and on the mushrooms are likely to fall through the mesh and stay in the woods where they belong; yet another is that many people believe the spores will continue to spread after the mushroom is picked, so a mesh bag allows release of the spores to regenerate the picking area. All in all mushroom hunting was a fun experience, and now when my friends start to chat about those secret places with the code names I will just smile and nod--lips zipped of course!
The morel (or rather, moral) of the story: Mushroom hunting season is nearly here...be safe in the woods and vigilant about mushroom identity...on the hunt for the mighty morel!
About Nanci Ottoson
My husband Matthew & I live in a sleepy little town in Kansas, where we share our home with a big yellow lab (our self-appointed security guard) and a very sweet spoiled cat. I inherited a love for growing things from my grandmother, for whom my soap & candle business Rosemary's Garden is named. My interests include gardening, travel & home improvement projects.