Blane Klemek: Morel mushrooms — the morsel of the woods
This spring has been a spring for the record books. The prolonged winter has resulted in a rather condensed period where everything is seemingly happening at once, especially with regard to the migration into Minnesota of many of our summertime resident neo-tropical songbirds and other birds.
In just the past couple of weeks, large influxes of Baltimore orioles, including orchard orioles, as well as wood warblers, thrushes, ovenbirds, catbirds, thrashers, tanagers, hummingbirds, and many others, have suddenly appeared — it would seem anyway — in backyards, fields, and forests everywhere. I have even received a few reports from people observing blackburnian warblers, which is a species of warbler I’m still looking to add to my life list. Maybe I will yet this spring!
As do our avian springtime migrants, so, too, does another organism reveal itself to us each and every spring, albeit in fluctuating numbers from year to year. Though not a migrant, certainly not capable of movement (nor a bird for that matter!), this sedentary delight is nonetheless capable of being observed in one place one season and in an entirely different location the next — not unlike that of those species of birds known by many of us as irruptive species.
Indeed, what I am writing about is our official state mushroom: the common, but sometimes especially hard to find, morsel of the woods — the magnificent morel mushroom. Adopted by the Minnesota Legislature in 1984, this one species of morel, Morchella esculenta, has been our state mushroom for almost thirty years now. Easily one of the most recognizable mushrooms that grow in the wild, morels are sought after every spring by morel hunters searching for woodland delicacies.
The cone-shaped, large-stemmed morel looks something like a miniature Christmas tree. Growing to only about four to eight inches tall, the mushrooms are easily overlooked in leaves and debris of the forest floor. But once a person’s search imagery is honed, spotting morels becomes a cinch. The deeply pitted tan, brown, or black cap and the much paler and smooth stalk are diagnostic morel traits. And both the stalk and cap are hollow.
Some people will tell you that when wild violets are blooming, the morels are out, or up, emerged, popping, and the like. Others may say that the time to go a’hunt’n is when oak leaves are the size of mouse ears, or when ferns are still curled up as fiddleheads, or when lilacs are about to bloom, or when hepaticas have blossomed.
Still, others wait for the ground to warm just enough while hoping for just the right amount of moisture. Regardless of the chosen time to actually step forth into your favorite woodland, it is a fact that morel hunting is an annual springtime event which typically occurs from early May to early June in Minnesota.
Morel hunting grounds are closely held and guarded secrets by those lucky enough to stumble upon such locales. Asking a morel hunter where he or she has found their mushrooms is about as sensible as asking someone where they caught their limit of walleyes. “Area woods” is about all one can hope to pry from a morel picker. Yet those inexperienced in hunting for morels can tip the odds in their favor if they know a little about the environments morels generally occupy.
My personal favorite places to search for morels are in aspen forests, usually middle-aged to mature stands. I have frequently found ample amounts of mushrooms in such woodlands, which are sometimes mixed with oak and pine. Other places that some people have reportedly picked morels from are in apple orchards, river bottomlands dominated by cottonwood trees, and coniferous woodlands. Some folks say that if you find old dead elms you’ll find morels too. While this may indeed be true, I have yet to find a morel beside a dead old elm myself.
Once in the woods, damp places are good places to search. Oftentimes looking on south facing slopes where sunlight more easily penetrates and warms the soil are good bets as well. Old root-mounds — those places where trees have up-rooted many years prior — near decaying logs, and at the bases of old or dying trees are likely spots to check too. I have also discovered morels growing in hazel thickets and near forested wetlands, but never within wetlands. While morels prefer damp environments, they will not persist in perpetually wet locales.
Obviously, it is the morel’s palatability that makes hunting for them so worthwhile. Few dishes can beat the flavor of morel mushrooms sautéed in butter. Some people dry or freeze morels, although I have yet to try my hand at morel preservation (I can never resist eating them as soon as I pick’em!). But no matter how you eat morels, whether as a side dish served with steak, added to a soup, or a whole pan of morels all by themselves, the taste will leave you wanting more.
A word of caution to would-be, first-time morel hunters: make sure you know what you are picking! While several edible species of Morchella exist, toxic look-alikes exist as well. Acquire a good mushroom field guide that has plenty of drawings and photographs to help you positively identify your mushrooms. Becoming ill, or worse, is not the way to end a morel-picking excursion. The old mushroom picking expression is always worth heeding: “When in doubt, throw it out!”
Oh, wonderful springtime in Minnesota; it’s birding time and morel time once again as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
(Klemek is the DNR Area Wildlife Supervisor in Detroit Lakes. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)