Gathering food from the woods and wild places is a special treat of rural living. In the last month I’ve felt privileged to be able to get outside, watch nature come alive, and eat it. Many of the edible plants which produce fruit mid-summer are still small this early in the season and it can be tough to gather a whole meal. However, I still consider early spring to be the best time to forage because of a few delicious exceptions to that rule.
Every Spring, as late-March sunshine begins to warm the soil, gatherers can be found combing the hills and hollows for morels (AKA the tastiest mushroom there ever was). The morel is a highly sought-after fungus with a unique look. These little delicacies only grow for a little over a month every year — a week or more on either side of the month of April.
To hunt morels successfully, you need to pay attention to a few important factors:
- The weather conditions in your area. This is the most important factorin your hunt. Morels like rainy days and warm nights. They grow in response to soil temperatures of around 50 degrees- you can check online for a chart of soil temperatures across the state for help there. If the temperatures are dropping close to or below freezing at night, morels probably won’t be flushing (sprouting) well the next day. You can hunt in all the right areas and still not find any morels if the weather conditions aren’t right.
- The type of trees in your area of interest. Morels are mycorrhizal mushrooms, meaning they form relationships with the roots of living trees as opposed to growing on dead stumps and leaves. To increase your chances of success you need to be focusing your search under certain types of trees. Some of the best host trees are elm, ash, cottonwood, apple, sycamore, and aspen. Don’t limit yourself to just these trees however, as morels can grow under a wide range of host species.
- Thirdly, look for trees which are damaged and dying, but not dead yet. Morels are more likely to flush in large amounts when their host tree is dying, as they will feel the need to reproduce and find a new spot to grow. A common host tree that is missing some bark, or is scarred, is a good candidate for morels.
Be on the look-out for false morels! While the morel is a distinctive mushroom that’s hard to confuse, there are some similar mushrooms which shouldn’t be eaten. To confirm that you’ve got the real thing, cut the mushrooms in half and ensure they are hollow with a cavity stretching from the base of the stem to the tip of the cap. Remember, “If it’s hollow, you can swallow”!
Once you find morels, the best practice is to cut them near the base with a knife to avoid disturbing the soil and the underground parts of the fungus. This also keeps dirt out of your foraged food. Do not store your morels in a plastic bag! They need to breathe or they will turn slimy quickly. Keep an old onion or potato sack to carry them in until you get home. The holes allow them to breathe and they will also get a chance to spread their spores widely as you carry them across the landscape looking for more.
When you get them home, divide them in half before putting them in a bowl of lightly salted water in the fridge for a few hours to a few days until you have enough to eat. This will get the dirt and bugs off. Rinse before cooking and lay them on a paper towel to dry.
Morel Recipe – Pan Fried – My granny cooks them this way so naturally there’s no better method.
- Roll halved morels in a dish of flour
- Slap some butter on a skillet
- Add halved morels to the skillet
- Pan fry those suckers, add a pinch of salt to taste
Eugene Hancock is an AmeriCorps national service member with Rural Action’s Sustainable Forestry team. An Athens native, he studied plant biology at Ohio University and prefers to spend his time out in the woods identifying herbs and trees, mushroom hunting, or bird watching.