Cooking Fresh Spring 2012 Issue

Wild Mushrooms: Join the Hunt

By Dani Lind | Photo By Jim Klousia 0

Some mushrooms are very predictable and only grow at a certain time on a certain part of a certain tree. Others, like the wild oyster mushrooms, are flexible and will grow on just about any dead or wounded tree in a wide variety of conditions over a long season. Some are easy to cultivate in an artificial environment, like the common button mushroom or any of the wide variety of fungi you can buy a kit to grow in your basement.

Morels are sort of predictable. They definitely prefer dying elms and tend to show up in greatest numbers in May during wet springs. But they’re full of surprises. Sometimes you’ll find them in a suburban lawn or apple orchard with not an elm in sight. Sometimes you’ll find them in April or June. Sometimes conditions will be textbook perfect and you’ll check a spot every day for weeks and not find a one.

And sometimes you’ll stumble onto a mother load. One year, after hours of hunting in my back forty with no success, I was walking dejectedly home past a perfectly healthy big elm and almost stepped on a tan six-incher. Whoa! Slow down! I got down on my haunches and found a veritable forest of big ones. They popped up in a 360 degree circle about 10 yards around the giant elm. I didn’t know the elm was dying, but the morels did—a few years later that tree was totally gone.

Mycologists have been trying to cultivate morels commercially for years with little luck. Experts think morels are the product of a complicated synergistic relationship with dying elm trees. Supposedly, as an elm starts to die, its sap runs into the ground and activates the spores. The spores then take up to two years to develop the mycelia that will eventually produce and sustain the morels we pick in the spring. They don’t all flush out at once; they are very sensitive to temperature and moisture fluctuations that make microclimates—even of a few yards—important.

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