News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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April 24, 2011

Tradition finds Wabash Valley mushroom hunters in spring frenzy

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.

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