Conditions perfect for high yields of Morel mushrooms
Conditions have been perfect in several states for high yields of Morel mushrooms, which pop up in post-burn areas and can bring up to $20 a pound.
According to Keith Ridler in an article for the Idaho Statesman, “nearly a million acres of U.S. Forest Service land burned last year in Idaho, Oregon and Washington.” Morels grow best in ashes and dead leaves.
The spores commonly begin germinating a few weeks after a fire.
“Spores by the million can spread over an area,” Ridler said. “The spores germinate and create delicate underground growths that look like spider webs. The growths eventually include nutrient storage areas. Experts say these formations, called sclerotia, can exist for years but the fruiting bodies desired by mushroom pickers only appear when conditions are right. That might not be for decades.”
Morels look like cone-shaped sponges and are a delicacy to mushroom lovers. Even after being dried, they retain a woodsy flavor and chewy texture.
“The first Morels that pop up after a controlled burn or a forest fire are the best,” according to picker Tony Frontino of Donnelly, Idaho. However, “one burn, one year is all you get. After that, different species called Grays, Greens, Pinks and Naturals follow.”
These aren’t as good, he said.
Morel hunting isn’t easy, either.
“Once we were picking on a mountain that was steep — really steep. There was a wet, slick, slimy aftermath left from both fire and rain,” Frontino said. “I couldn’t really tell where I was stepping and I went down.”
Frontino fell on an 8 inch tree stob that came up right between his armpit and ribs. It could have been a very bad injury, he said.
Another time, reaching upward on a steep slope for the largest mushroom he’d ever seen, Frontino watched in disbelief as, “Poomp! It jumped straight up, hit the ground and bounce-rolled straight between my legs.”
He looked over one shoulder and watched as it rolled away.
Trent and Diane Chandler, also of Donnelly, spend months living in the woods during peak seasons.
“Morels sprout sometimes in the hardest places,” she said. “You don’t know how many have literally slid out of my fingers and rolled down the mountain!”
Burns can be disbursed over extremely large areas.
“Mushrooming is like being in hunting camp,” Trent said. “You move around a lot, or find the best place and hang for awhile. From there, you drive out each morning and scout.”
He added that Idaho City, Idaho had one of the biggest burns this year, resulting in the most Morels.
Picking isn’t always lucrative. Recently, the Chandlers “got into their truck and drove and drove and drove. We ended up at a dead end without finding any mushrooms.”
But later that week, they hit a motherlode that netted over 58 pounds.
The pair stays in a sheepherders tent during mushroom season and uses a second tent for sorting and storing what they pick. Diane, Trent said proudly, “is an inspiration. She’ll start checking out an area and next thing I know she’s bent at the waist, snatching Morels up as fast as she can!”
Hiking and digging through ash is dirty work, however, and to get all the dirt off, the mushroom hunters have to scrub with dish detergent and steel wool.
“I don’t think I have a thumb print anymore from all the scrubbing,” Diane said, holding out both her hands. They were still stained despite her best efforts. She said she can’t wear gloves when she works, because she has to be able to feel what she’s doing.
The Chandlers warn first-time pickers that they must be careful not to confuse Morels with other mushrooms that resemble them but might be poisonous.
“Even if you simply touch those, the poison can be absorbed through the skin and make you disoriented,” Trent said. “This isn’t good when you’re far out into the woods.”
Mushroom hunters do occasionally get lost or turned around. Every year, the thrill of the search combined with walking while looking down causes a few pickers to wander a bit too far. It’s always best to have companions around that you can shout out to.
But Morel hunting is “lots of fun and a good way to bring in extra cash” said Frontino. In Idaho, a 21-day, $200 permit from the Forest Servest allows you to pick over five gallons of mushrooms per day.
“This year, the market is already so saturated it might be better to dry them and sit on them for a while,” he said. “Unless you need the money right away.” ❖