Extension Educator, Local Food Systems and Small Farms
As spring descends upon us and weather warms, the time draws closer to morel mushroom season. Every year is different, and last years' mushroom harvest was pretty much a bust. So expectations are high that 2011 will be a great mushroom year. Following are some comments from Dave Shiley, U of I Extension Natural Resources Educator.
So what's the big deal about morels? Some people say they like the flavor, which is sometimes described as nutty. I have a friend who seems to become "nutty" during the spring, hunting for mushrooms every available minute he has, during the seemly short time morels can be found.
The length of time morels can be found in the spring is weather dependent. Ideal growing conditions occur when there is adequate rainfall to create moist soil conditions in the woods. The other requirement is warm air temperature, especially at night. Some people say that night time temperatures must be at least 55, while other mushroom enthusiasts wait until 60 degree Fahrenheit night time temperatures are present in the woodlands. Hot daytime temperatures, above 90 degree Fahrenheit, and dry conditions will halt the growth of these mushrooms.
While true morel mushrooms are fairly easy to identify and safe to eat, there are some false morels in the woods that are dangerous to eat. Both the true morel and dangerous false morels have a cap or top that looks similar to a sponge. However, the true morel has a hollow stem and top. If the interior has chambers, or cottony mass, it is likely a false morel and should not be eaten. If you have never picked morels, go with someone that can positively identify the edible, true morel during your first forages in the woods.
There are several types of true morels and even though they look similar in form, there are differences in color. There are some which are grey or black in color, usually found early in the season, and some which are yellow or sometimes yellowish brown, found later in the season.
Where to find morel mushrooms in the woods is an age old question that some mushroom hunters are reluctant to answer. Although morels have been found growing in a variety of places, there are some locations that seem to be more favorable. One of those locations is near dead elm trees. Other common locations seem to be near cottonwood and tulip poplar trees, as well as near apple and ash trees.
Morel mushroom hunting can be a fun spring activity, but don't turn the fun into disaster. Again, if you are a beginner, go with someone experienced that can safely and positively identify the true morel. Secondly, remember that morel hunting season occurs at the same time as spring turkey hunting season. Turkey hunting hours end at 1:00pm in Illinois, so many state parks and recreation areas, that allow turkey hunting, require mushroom hunters to stay out of the woods until after 1:00 pm. It's probably a good rule to follow anywhere in Illinois. Also be aware of private property rights and never trespass on private property without seeking permission to do so.