Author: Tom Tatum
Slug: Outdoors for April 12 2016
FORAGING FOR FABULOUS FOREST FUNGI by Tom Tatum
Here in our neck of Penn’s Woods, most outdoorsy folks find themselves in pursuit of trout this time of year. With our in-season trout stockings now underway, many anglers are in hot pursuit of that five fish daily limit.
But not everyone is focused on scoring a dinner of tasty trout these days. That’s because another coveted (albeit more eccentric) season is now in play — the season of the wild mushroom, specifically the morel, considered by many as the ultimate fungi delicacy. While residents of southern Chester County are intimately familiar with commercially grown portabellas, shitakes, and whites, especially those who live in or around Kennett Square, the self-proclaimed “Mushroom Capital of the World,” many have no idea that wild morels may be growing just outside their door.
Now is the time to begin your quest for these delicious morel morsels in a season that overlaps with and generally peaks during a Pennsylvania spring gobbler season that runs from April 30 through May 31 this year. Mid May, while turkey hunting in Bedford County, is when I’ve had my own (limited) success finding these elusive fungi. But my mushroom-harvesting success rate may skyrocket here in Chesco now that I’ve had a chance to talk to one of the region’s foremost wild mushroom aficionados, Ronnie McAllister, Jr., a lifelong resident of Williamsport, MD.
I caught up with McAllister at the Mason-Dixon Outdoor Writers Association’s annual conference in Hagerstown, MD, last week where he shared his mushroom-foraging wisdom. Now age 59, McAllister has been scouring the woods for wild morels ever since he was knee-high to a toadstool. “There were a lot more mushrooms around back then,” he lamented.
McAllister explained that there are four basic subspecies of morels: black, gray, white, and yellow. Black morels are the first to emerge in April followed by grays and whites. Yellow morels, which require warmer weather, generally appear later in May. “Yellow morels are the biggest and the best, but no matter which variety you’re after,” advised McAllister, “the best time to find them is after lots of rainfall — a three-day soaker is ideal. Look for morels on southeastern facing slopes sheltered from west winds. The PH of the soil, preferably on the alkaline side with a PH of at least 4 or 5, is also an important factor.”
In past years some of the best places to locate these mushrooms was among stands of dead elm trees. Now areas with lots of tulip poplars are best. “Morels disperse their spores as soon as they emerge from the ground and then they’ll last about a week after that,” asserted McAllister. “I’ll often go out in the middle of a rainstorm to look for them because I’ll have the woods to myself under those conditions. A heavy rain can cause the morels to pop up overnight.”
McAllister believes that the best time to hunt for mushrooms is from mid-April to mid-May, making for a rather brief season. Morels are best prepared and eaten fresh after being sautéed in a frying pan. “They’ll only last a few days after you pick them, even when refrigerated,” he said, “although some people dry then for consumption later.”
McAllister’s favorite mushroom stomping grounds are in Maryland’s Blair and Washington Counties. “When you discover one morel, the key is to slow down since there will be others in the vicinity, but they can be very difficult to spot,” he said. “If you work your way uphill with your line of sight directly ahead they’ll be easier to find.”
A friend of mine once declared, “You can eat any mushroom you find in the wild,” but then added the caveat, “but some of them you can only eat once.” That’s because many wild mushrooms can be deadly poisonous and so toxic they may kill you soon after eaten. They should be avoided at all costs. One of the most common and potentially fatal of these is Gyromitra esculenta, a species of false morels found in the spring about the same time and in the same areas as the true morels. “These poisonous mushrooms look like a deformed morel,” explained McAllister. “They’re shaped more like a squashed fist. Unlike the true morel which has a hollow stem, the false morel has a solid stem. If it has a solid stem, don’t eat it!” He added that only spring mushrooms are edible, fall mushrooms are not.
But toxic mushrooms aren’t the only safety concern morel hunters need to be aware of. Although focused on finding fungi, the mushroom hunter should be careful not to trip over downed timber. In some upstate areas timber rattlesnakes and even black bears can be a problem. McAllister has had a few close encounters with bears while in quest of mushrooms, and since he’s in the woods during spring gobbler season — and often combines turkey hunting trips with mushroom foraging — he’ll always dress in fluorescent orange when on the move. He also carries a walking stick, capped by a carved morel, of course, to poke under leaves and other debris where mushrooms may be hiding.
Ronnie McAllister, Jr.
(End Tom Tatum’s Outdoors Column)