TERRE HAUTE —
Spring mushroom hunting is an Indiana tradition. Mushrooms are only one of the many edible pleasures on Mother Nature’s buffet.
Nothing is more fun than an old mushroom story. Many people are afraid of mushrooms because they don’t know the difference between the poisonous ones and the good-eating ones.
It has been determined that there are as many as 16 different species of morel mushrooms in North America. It is hard to tell many of these mushrooms apart by simply looking at them, but there are several groups that have defining characteristics.
In the Midwest, three familiar groups are the black, yellow and deliciosa morels. Another morel, the half-free morel, is separated from these groups by its stem and cap attachment. None of these mushrooms has been officially named. The scientific names that have been assigned to some of these morels are names describing European morels and may not fit genetically with the American morels. It’s a complicated mess. Studies like the Morel Data Collection Project are in the works that will hopefully sort it all out.
Despite this, a morel by any other name will taste just as good. The following mushrooms are choice edibles, found in spring, early April to late May, give or take a week or two. Prime-time in southern Indiana is mid-April to mid-May.
In the Midwest, the black morels are the first to appear in early April with the spring rains and warm nights. They seem to have an association with ash and poplar trees, along with dead elm and cottonwood, but they are also said to be found under a variety of other trees, including conifers.
The black morels are distinguished by the dark, flat ridges and dark pits. The names Morchella elata and Morchella conica are sometimes inappropriately applied to these morels.
The classic yellow morel, sometimes called Morchella esculenta, usually fruits in late April and into May. Large finds are often associated with ash trees, dying elm trees and old apple orchards. They can also be found growing under other hardwoods and conifers. These golden yellow examples have light-colored ridges and pits. Warm nights and rain during the season bring on more mushrooms; cold nights and dry conditions lead to fewer mushrooms.
The poor gray morel has turned out to be a yellow morel in disguise — so says its DNA. But it is still gray. Studies have shown that the gray morel, with its dark pits and light ridges, is genetically identical to the classic yellow morel. The color variation may represent immature specimens or may be caused by factors such as climate, substrate and/or tree association.
Sometimes called Morchella deliciosa, the creamy yellow to golden yellow deliciosa morel is distinguished from the classic yellow morel by its smaller size and pits that are more defined and usually vertically arranged. This morel can be formed throughout the morel season. It can be found in about any wooded area.
Half-free morels, sometimes called spikes, feature a stem that is attached halfway up the cap. Other morels have stems that are attached closer to the bottom of the cap. They can be found in abundance in some years, which is good because they are rather leggy (more stem than cap), although some people love the fried stems as much as the caps.
Are they edible?
Let us talk more about morels’ edibility. One of the big questions people have about mushrooms is whether or not they are edible. There is no short answer to this question. Fungi make up a kingdom of living organisms just as plants and animals make up their own kingdoms of organisms. The number and diversity of fungi are as similarly complex as the number and diversity of plants. Just as the answer to the question “Are plants edible?” is both “yes” and “no” — and everywhere in between — this is also the case for fungi. Some mushrooms are deadly poisonous, while others are being hailed for their now scientifically documented ability to stimulate the immune system and fight cancer.
Studies like the one published in the October 2009 journal Biometals show that some edible mushrooms may contain amounts of heavy metals. Hunters advise not picking mushrooms by the sides of roads due to possible contamination. Also, industrial areas where lead may be present should be avoided. The familiar button mushroom on store shelves contains potential toxic substances such as agaritine, a suspected carcinogen for humans, although no studies have proven a real risk to humans. Therefore, cooking the mushrooms should eliminate this risk.
The cell walls of mushrooms are constructed with chitin (ki-tin), the same material from which crab shells are constructed. Chitin is thought to be hard to digest. Cooking mushrooms helps break down the chitin and makes them easier to digest.
Many mushrooms will either cause allergies or stomach upset. For this reason, it is advisable to sample a small amount of any mushroom and wait to see how it affects you before indulging in larger amounts. It is also advisable to limit the number of different mushrooms eaten while determining your reaction to them, so that you will know which mushroom it is that disagrees with you. Use caution, making sure that the mushroom is edible, before consuming it. Amanita verna, or the fool’s mushroom, is a deadly poisonous fungus. The mushrooms reportedly taste very good, but by the time symptoms appear — up to 24 hours later — the damage is done.
The world of mushrooms offers us a diverse array of delicious and healthy foods and effective medicines. Being properly informed of the types and risks that should be avoided is important. Then, enjoying them as food is not only safe, but a passion that keeps hunters coming back to that same spot in the woods year after year.
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The following is advice and beliefs of some longtime mushroom hunters in the Wabash Valley.
You have to use an open mesh-type sack to carry mushrooms in or the spores can’t fall off to help reseed themselves. The amount of snow cover has no factor on the growth either. Mushrooms can and do grow any place, like open fields and grassy areas.
Fungi originate from a combination of dirt and nature’s waste, dead bugs, waste of animals, sun on the morning dew causing it to form. Sandy soil is good. He’s never found any in clay. The best place he’s found mushrooms growing faces west to the afternoon sun in strip pit areas, on the west side for sunshine and plenty of water, and by water’s edge. He thinks the mushrooms grow — from start to finish — for only two to three hours. He says flour and a frying pan is all you need.
A dying elm tree that is starting to slip the bark is the best mushroom producer. He believes the males may produce but the females may not. He believes lightning may play a role in a mushroom’s growth by putting a charge in the ground because some of the largest he’s ever found were discovered directly after a thunderstorm. When picking mushrooms, he advises pinching them off at the ground, leveling the roots.
Some types of mushrooms with different configurations may have a more difficult time reproducing. He thinks it’s possible that the mushroom-producing fungi can be transferred by animals. He warns that different types of fungi will have different effects on the digestive system, with some being very dangerous. Also, he believes they absorb the taste of spices well when cooking.