By Doug Pifer
Somewhere in an old orchard under a dead apple tree, grayish yellow mushrooms that look like sponges have popped out of the ground. It’s morel mushroom time.
I found my first morel in damp, rich woods where swamp violets and skunk cabbage grew. Poking up through wet leaves, it looked surprisingly like a small piece of dried sea sponge about five inches high. Pear-shaped, it had a short stem with a slightly granular surface. When I picked it, it broke in half and was completely hollow, as if molded out of wax. I discovered several dozen more as I searched around among the dead leaves.
When I took them home, I studied several field guides and identified them as Morchella esculenta, the common, gray or yellow morel. The morel is related to the cup and bird-nest fungus, and its woodsy aroma reminds me of the dead tree roots on which it feeds. The cap of the morel generally has a honeycomb-like network of ridges surrounding deep pits. The tops of many of them take on a rusty or blackish tinge. But you know you have a morel mushroom when you split it open and the cap and stem are all in one piece and it is completely hollow inside.
The name esculenta means delicious. Morels are among the choicest of all mushrooms. They belong to a group of fungi known informally as the foolproof four, along with giant puffball, sulfur shelf, and shaggy mane mushrooms. Supposedly these are the four most easily recognized edible mushrooms.
Morel mushrooms sometimes show up at farm markets. I once bought some at the Mount Airy Farm Market in Waterloo. They were delicious sautéed and served with buttered toast. It is always a good idea to split the morels in half and soak them in salt water for a minute or two. Virtually every morel mushroom has a resident population of springtails: tiny, soft insects so light colored they are nearly transparent. The salt water bath will destroy them all instantly.
In the Western States, morels grow by the hundreds in recently burned forested land. Harvesting them has become a big business there, and teams of professional pickers set up camps in the national forest lands in Washington, Oregon, and the Rocky Mountain states. There, licensed mushroom buyers sell them to gourmet stores and restaurants throughout the world.
Now here comes the wet blanket: I don’t recommend eating anything you pick from the woods unless you’re equally certain about what it is and what it isn’t. In other words, you should know what other species it might be, and how to tell the difference. The poisonous morel mushroom, Verpa bohemica, appears at about the same time as the edible morels. A poisonous morel resembles a brain more than a sponge, and its insides have a cotton-like texture. Still, it looks very similar and many folks have eaten it and have become really sick.
If you want to hunt and eat wild morels, remember there are old mushroom hunters and there are bold mushroom hunters. But there are no old, bold mushroom hunters!