Stalking the Wild Mushroom – A Personal Journey
by Richard D. Moll
Mushrooming, or picking wild mushrooms for the table, is a cultural phenomenon. To collect or not collect is embedded deep in the psyche of a nation or people. An edible mushroom called the black trumpet, depending on local lore, may be called either the trumpet of death or the horn of plenty. In many Eastern European countries, mushrooming is a national pastime. It is said that the Polish labor leader, Lech Walesa learned he had won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983 while listening to a portable radio when he was out picking mushrooms with friends.
In most of the US, wild mushrooms are simply called toadstools. Toadstools of course are considered poisonous, hence our taboo against picking and eating wild mushrooms. The beautiful but poisonous fly agaric, Amanita muscaria, is one of them. Ironically, it is probably one of the best-known mushrooms in the world, appearing in paintings and drawings, especially in children’s books. Its spectacular bright red cap is adorned with irregular fluffy white spots which are the remnants of a part of the mushroom called the universal veil. In the wild it can be found under a variety of trees including pine, spruce and oak. It is immediately recognizable on the forest floor springing out of the brown duff of pine needles or oak leaves. If one stops to look, one can see that underneath the cap are beautiful pure white gills. The cap is supported by a long white stem. There is a ring or skirt about a quarter way down the stem which becomes swollen or bulbous at the base. It is a striking looking mushroom.
Picking wild mushrooms for the table in the US is left to immigrants, some descendants of immigrants, and hobbyists. My story-telling mother’s mother was Irish. She picked mushrooms for the table in the county park near her home during the Depression years. My mother would love to tell me and my sisters stories of her mother, with children in tow, foraging for mushrooms, and returning with an apron or a basket full of them. My grandmother Maggie called the white mushroom she picked for the table pinkies because the gills on the underside of these white mushrooms had a distinctly bright pink color when young. My mother was very specific that her mother only picked pinkies. My grandmother would occasionally see other immigrant groups in the park picking mushrooms other than pinkies and wondered aloud if they would be alive in the morning. These stories intrigued me, and as I grew older I grew more and more convinced I should follow in my grandmother’s footsteps.
By the time I was ready to pursue the dream of picking the pink bottom mushroom, my grandmother had long passed. Neither my mother nor any of my aunts or uncles followed in my grandmother’s footsteps, so I was on my own. The thought of trying to teach myself to identify edible wild mushrooms never occurred to me. The taboo was too strong. I signed up for a class at the local museum called Collecting and Identifying Wild Mushrooms. One of the first things I learned was that in our local area, there were edible mushrooms and poisonous lookalikes. I was immediately cautioned that this was not a pastime to be taken lightly. I began learning about wild mushrooms in earnest. After a year of classroom and one-on- one coaching and training from my mushroom teacher, Dr. Leo Tanghe, I finally mustered up the courage to pick and eat pinkies. It was no small achievement to reach back and find and eat the same mushroom my grandmother had collected and eaten so many years ago. In my minds eye I could see a young Maggie, smiling at me as I returned from that same park with a basket full of pinkies.
Although we take for granted that safe, edible mushrooms are available year-round from the supermarket, this was not always the case. In the Western world, before 1650, only wild mushrooms were available in the market, and only when they were in season. The best references are that around 1650, the French perfected the cultivation of wild mushrooms. The mushroom they cultivated was none other than a very close relative of the mushroom my grandmother picked, Agaricus campestris. The method of cultivating this mushroom was a closely guarded secret. It was not until 1731 that the French method of cultivation was transferred to England. It was not until 1865 that the spawn to culture mushrooms was transferred from England to the USA.
Collecting and eating the white button mushroom my grandmother gathered was fun, but the scientist in me wanted more. To further my knowledge of mycology, that is the study of fungi or mushrooms, I joined the local mushroom club. Mushroom clubs can be found in many cities and towns across the US. Clubs typically hold educational meetings during the winter and host field trips during the spring, summer and fall months. Trips to locations to look for mushrooms are called forays. Forays can be held be held anywhere from a city park like Central Park in New York City to a National Park in Oregon. With the support of club members, formal classes and forays with experienced mushroom guides, my repertoire of easily identifiable edible and poisonous mushrooms grew.
I began to attend our club’s meetings and forays regularly. I became vice-president of our local mushroom club and editor of our club newsletter. I was now really hooked. Walks in the woods along paths and off paths now had a purpose. With my eyes glued to the ground, I walked slower, looking for mushrooms. I found that when I did walk through the woods with non-mushroom people, that for them, the mushrooms along the trail were either invisible or ignored. There wasn’t any reason for them to notice their strange forms and dull colors. Their forms and colors just blended into the landscape. Trees, flowers, ferns, birds, chipmunks and squirrels were what were seen. Years ago, my son and I visited my cousin Nick’s hunting camp in the hills of the southwestern corner of New York State. Nick regularly visited the camp during hunting season for whitetail deer and wild turkey. In a guided tour of the woods he pointed out the habitat and signs of both deer and turkey, signs I did not notice. However, I did bring my mushroom basket on the hike. It was a warm fall day in late September. The previous weeks rains had produced an abundance of mushrooms on the trails and in the woods of the hunting camp. Upon returning to the camp I emptied out my basket onto the deck railing. Nick was amazed. He said he never knew he had so many different kinds of mushrooms growing in his woods.
There is one wild mushroom that breaks the stereotype of the wild mushroom as a toadstool. It is one of the most elusive, prized and sought after edible mushroom in the world. Its Latin name is Morchella esculenta, commonly called a morel. There are yellow, gray, brown and black varieties and they only grow in the spring, typically during the first three weeks in May. People who would not even think of picking a wild mushroom will spend many days in the early spring looking for morels.
How could that be?
The texture and flavor of the morel is unlike any store-bought mushroom. It is also one of the few mushrooms that has no poisonous look alike. It only grows in the wild.
The caveat is that you still must know a few field characteristics to distinguish a true morel from something called a false morel. At first glance, the true morel looks like a conical sponge or elongated pine cone on a stick. On closer inspection of a morel one can see a closely woven network of ridges and pits on a white stem. When cut in half from top to bottom, the entire mushroom is hollow inside. No other mushroom has these characteristics. The false morel has folds instead of ridges and pits. When cut in half it has numerous small chambers instead of one single chamber.
Paradoxically, the morel is easy to recognize but difficult to find even in places in the country that hold annual morel festivals. People rent bed and breakfasts and travel to Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Illinois and Missouri to pursue the wild morel. Even in areas where morels are easily found, many morel hunters still guard their favorite morel patches more closely than a fisherman guards his favorite fishing hole. Modern technology has not changed the secrecy associated with morel hunting. There are many internet sites which gives tips on how and where to hunt for morels. There is even a site where one can upload the date, state, general location and pictures of the day’s morel finds. However, no one posts GPS coordinates of their finds.
Timing is critical when looking for morels.
Each morel year is different. In the area where I hunt for morels in Upstate New York, the prime time for finding morels can vary from the last week in April to the last week in May. They can grow under spruce, apple, ash, old elm trees, along paths, near recently disturbed ground and even on lawns. I look for a time when the ground has warmed to a constant 50 degrees, after a rain and around the time when the apple blossoms and the first large flush of dandelions appear in lawns and fields.
Going back to my productive favorite spots from the year before can yield one, none, or a dozen morels.
In thin years, when my favorite spots are barren, I must search for new places. Looking for morels is a game of hide and seek. The brown, yellow, gray or black mushroom camouflages itself among the dry leaves from last fall. The new spot can be a park, an old orchard or some woods on a friend’s farm.
As I arrive at my new spot, I am thinking; all the conditions are right, there should be morels here. I walk up a path, slowly scanning the edges of the adjacent woods. I stop walking. I stoop down so I can be closer to the ground. I slowly scan the hill above me. I can almost smell the mushroom. And then, as if out of nothing, the first morel of the season appears before me. I look away and it disappears. I look again, and it appears, this time with two other morels only a foot away from the first. Was it a victory or did they want to be found?
Rich Moll is a local author and lifelong resident of Irondequoit. A husband, father and grandfather he worked as a chemist for 40 years. His hobbies include traveling, photography, reading, and mycology.