Updated: June 6, 2014 6:20AM
It has been estimated that there are some 10 million people throughout the United States who hunt for a little fungus that can be found only during spring and that many consider better tasting than a fine cut of beef.
Searching for the elusive morel is a favorite reason for slipping into the woods every spring for so many people, but you would never know it.
“Shroomers” don’t talk about it.
Regardless of how passionate they are, theirs is a secret affair, a private romance that is shrouded in mystery and mystique and tradition. If you are a shroomer, you are grinning like a Cheshire cat right now because you know that even your closest friends don’t know how you find them, and definitely not where you find them.
What’s the big deal about a platter full of strange-looking fungi?
If you have tasted morels with scrambled eggs or in a sauce poured over venison steak or simply sautéed in a hot skillet with a little butter and served with crusty bread, you know why the early spring woodland fungi are such a favorite.
When studying the English language, I learned that rules apply most of the time but not all of the time.
That is the first rule of hunting morels. They should be in certain, well-defined places, but they can be found anywhere.
So while it used to be said that morels could primarily be found around dead elm trees, you will also find them in some of the unlikeliest places.
We have found them in heavily wooded gullies, where it is damp, dark and overgrown with ground cover.
We have found them along unkempt fence rows where plants enjoy bright, warming sunlight throughout the day.
We have found them beside our doorway, growing in the lawn.
Our best finds have been in old apple and fruit orchards where the trees are dying or dead.
The thing to remember is that morels are fungi and that their “food source” is decaying and dying or dead plant material, mostly rotting trees.
While we see the mushroom above the ground, the “plant” — which is called the “mycelium” and is the “tree” if we compare it to an apple tree — is spread out within the rich top layer of soil. The fruits of that “tree” are the mushrooms that grow above ground.
So it is kind of an upside-down tree, which feeds on and breaks down the decaying plant matter, and fruiting when conditions are right by pushing a morel up through the top soil, rotting leaves and sticks.
Larry Lonik, considered by many shroomers to be the world’s foremost morel authority, even long after his untimely death a decade ago, continues to teach newcomers the tactics for finding mushrooms and about the magical world of hunting morels.
His series of books — “Basically Morels,” “Morels & More” and “Morels: True or False” — as well as his homemade videos provide a simple, clear template for becoming a morel hunter. There are also myriad sites on the web which provide an endless collection of mushrooming information.
Larry was from Michigan and explained that more than 500,000 people from his beloved “Mitten” state hunt morels every spring.
His theory was that a vast, single mycelium covers the entire land mass of lower Michigan and that is why there are tens of millions of morels gathered every spring.
Throughout the collar counties and northwestern Indiana, morels first appear in early May, and the season continues for three to four weeks.
The first to appear are the smaller black morels, lasting a week or more. Then the larger white or yellow morels appear, with the giant morels closing out the show.
As with all things in nature, the environmental conditions dictate when and where the best hunting can be found.
If you find that the west side of a hill is producing, chances are good that, as the north and east side warm, you will begin to find morels there as they fade from the west side.
If you find some in a low, damp and dark wooded area, you should find more in other areas with similar conditions.
In fishing, it’s called patterning, and it works when hunting morels.
The equipment you will need is simple: a pocketknife and an open-laced sack to carry them in. Since morels reproduce by spreading their microscopic spores, a vented bag will allow the spores to fall, seeding more areas for future yields.
Morels are easy to identify, and the true, good morels have a stem that is connected to the cap. If the cap is separate, sitting on top of the stem, you probably found a false morel, and those should never be eaten.
Nor should you eat raw morels nor can or preserve them in any way other than drying. Morels release a gas that is poisonous but that gas is dissipated when the morel is fried.
If you see your neighbor’s truck parked alongside the road beside an old farmstead during coming weeks, the chances are good that he is not picking dandelions.
It’s morel time!
Throughout the Southland, shroomers are heading to their secret spots, anxiously crawling through the underbrush, looking for the relative of the European truffle and one of the delights of being outdoors during spring.