contributed by OMS Board Member Bryan Lewis
Springtime stirs joy in the hearts of Ohio foragers. Every new patch of green and each new tree bud and flower quickens the pulse with anticipation of bounties of wild edibles to come: nettles, ramps, and–especially–morel mushrooms. And extra-especially, the yellow morel.
Morels are delicious, but I think the main source of passion and desire among foragers is their elusiveness. They have a relatively short and somewhat variable fruiting season. Morels have a way of surprising us by changing fruiting locations and sometimes growing in unexpected places, but they generally appear in specific habitats (often in association with elm and tulip trees, among others). That means seasoned mushroom hunters find special secret “morel spots” often in state parks and other public forests. The location of these “morel spots” are guarded like nuclear launch codes.
Morel hunting can sometimes seem like a competition. How many “spots” do you know, how often can you get out and check them, how many mushrooms can you collect? I’ve encountered many other foragers in woods with promising habitat. Usually they sheepishly try to act like they’re just hiking (as they walk slowly, slightly hunched over, staring at the ground).
That brings me to this spring, where I’ve been hearing stories of a bumper morel crop and seeing online photos of people with laundry baskets filled with yellow morels. But I’ve been unable to get out as much as usual in Ohio this spring. The first time I made it to my favorite spot (late April) I spent hours searching and found…nothing. That is, nothing morel-wise, but I saw many mushrooms (fawn mushrooms, collybias, inkys, pheasant’s backs, gallerina, many cup mushrooms) and found plenty of ramps and many beautiful spring flowers (trillium, blue bells, marsh marigold, and many more).
More recently I went out on a rainy, abnormally chilly day in May and found…a stump.
And then…another stump…and another…
Yikes! Too late! The mushroom hunters have cleaned these woods out. Jeez, someone has even cut off all the pheasant’s backs! Boy, the competition is intense this year. As I turn and head back, I try to think of the nice ramps and nettles I’m finding, and of looking forward to the much more interesting summer and fall mushroom seasons, imagining forests full of chanterelles. But at this moment, slightly damp and cold in the middle of the woods, those thoughts seem like shallow consolation. It sure would be nice to find a big yellow morel. It’s easy to get caught up in the treasure hunting mind-set.
And then, just before I get to my car, like a beacon in the forest, I see one. A slightly-past-its-prime-but-still-beautiful yellow morel! I look around carefully, but it’s just this one. Not even any nearby stumps. I briefly think about taking it home and cooking up this one mushroom in a kind of “essence of morel” omelette. But I re-consider and leave it. Let those spores spread a little longer. Who knows, hopefully, a less-experienced forager will find this very mushroom, maybe even their first morel! That nice thought, after all the wet, cold, bounty-less stump finding, helps me remember something that can be easy to forget in the spring. Foraging is not a competition. It’s a state of mind and a way of life.