Yellow morels, the royals among mushrooms, are nature’s reward for surviving winter.
Ephemeral delicacies from Wisconsin's third kingdom.
Story and photos by Hans G. Schabel
In Wisconsin we like the seasons. However predictable they are, the weather still assures a degree of variability, often dishing up unexpected problems or pleasures.
For instance, 2012 stood out as an amazing "Year of Butterflies," but two summers later those cheery creatures of the sun were virtually non–existent. Instead, they seemed to be replaced by mushrooms that popped up with rare diversity and abundance from the dank gloom of forest litter and wet, dead wood. And so, 2014 turned out to be a "Year of Shrooms," a good time to hit the woods, give your hunter–gatherer instincts free reign and stock up on fungal delicacies.
After an exceptionally brutal winter it seemed to take forever for the Wisconsin glacier to melt and for life to stir in the woods. For the "shroomers," eagerly waiting for the first morels, it was to be a very long wait. Nature’s rewards for the survivors of winter, and the surest harbingers of spring, were delayed by almost a month.
Finally, that crucial combination of soil temperatures in the 50 to 60 degree range, combined with nighttime lows in the 40s, daytime highs in the 60s or 70s, followed by a good rain, coaxed them forth.
In central Wisconsin, the parade of these fungal stars was ushered in on May 22 when I bumped into the first buttons of black morels, and then a week later into some yellows. However, by June 4, the year’s hunt for morels was already over, any stragglers remaining well hidden under a lush layer of grass and herbs.
This effectively shut down what is normally a two to three week window of opportunity for finding what I consider the king of mushrooms. While the morel season got a late start and was disappointingly short, I still managed to collect several pounds of them near dead elms or apple trees, and even a few 9–inch monsters under dead cottonwoods. Most productive, however, was the neighborhood of one vigorous, 16–inch white pine, which, for several years in a row, has been my most reliable honey spot, a veritable factory for these treats of the palate.
As always while "morelizing" in the spring woods, other mushrooms were encountered as secondary prizes, most notably the dryad’s saddle or pheasant’s back. These large conks, which favor the same dead elms where morels can be found, were abundant and could not be missed. Unfortunately, except for their tender edges which are palatable when sautéed or fried, their fruiting bodies tend to be as tough as they are handsome.
Succulence was not an issue with oyster mushrooms, their bouquets bursting from dead aspen overnight. As long as bugs did not beat you to them, their tenderloin caps were exceptionally plump and juicy last year.
For shaggy manes, their narrow caps shooting like clustered rockets out of the soil, it was even more important to pick them early. If not caught before the gills started turning pink, it would be too late to claim these excellent substitutes for asparagus. Within hours they could go from prime to useless, by dissolving into penumbras of oozing, repulsive black "ink."
At the end of this cool and wet spring with its mediocre morel crop, when most shroomers had already switched to seasonal, water–based outdoor ventures, a few "specialists" still scouted the forests, if not for food fungi, then for the artist’s conk. The grey–brown, woody, perennial shelves of this mushroom grow throughout summer, getting bigger from year to year. When their underside sprouts an ivory–colored, soft, easy–to–bruise layer of fungal tissue, certain artists will use this "canvas" for dry point etching designs, in essence fungal scrimshaw. These conks are also used for brewing tea and dyeing wool.
Prompted by generous rains and cool temperatures, the usual summer lull for mushrooms came to an end by mid–August. Then it surged into a crescendo of production that did not let up for two and a half glorious months. Right on time, the chicken or sulfur shelf mushrooms opened the fall parade. Their hard–to–overlook, bright orange and yellow conks erupted like seams of glowing lava from dead or dying oak, black cherries and willows.
They were followed shortly by equally conspicuous, pure white giant puffballs, which inflated balloon–like from damp, rich ground. Steaks cut from these fungal orbs offered a generous substitute for eggplant in moussaka and other recipes.
By mid–September they were followed by veritable gushers of the even more voluminous, brain–like fruiting bodies of the hen–of–the–woods, one of which weighed in at 45 pounds! September also provided an assortment of smaller but just as tasty morsels, including tooth or hedgehog mushrooms, chanterelles and parasols.
By the end of October, just as the deer rut started kicking in, most fungi were running out of steam, with a few of the never–abundant but delicious elm oysters bringing up the rear. While it turned out to be a banner year for the shroomers, to most others it was just an inhospitably cold and wet one. Admittedly, certain folks simply do not care for mushrooms as part of their diet, while others are more comfortable buying them in a grocery store than scrounging them in the woods. Still others like the thought of foraging for wild, pure, organic and free gifts from nature, but do not find the courage to venture into the mysterious third kingdom.
Just skimming through identification books filled with complicated names, botanical jargon, skull–and–crossbones symbols and all those look–alikes, some good, some not, can be intimidating.
For those hesitating to join the eclectic society of shroomers it may be useful to realize that most of its practitioners are amateurs. They are no more mycologists than hunters are wildlife biologists.
Becoming a shroomer, and living to tell about those exhilarating spring and fall forays into the woods in search of rare treats, is not as daunting as it may seem. All you need is the initial guidance from an experienced shroomer, who will help you separate the wheat from the chaff. After this initiation you should be able to assign each mushroom to one of three groups: those to relish, those to dismiss and those to shun.
In Wisconsin there are only one to two handfuls of unmistakable, easy–to–identify, safe gourmet mushrooms. Thousands of other "so–so" mushrooms, even if they may be safe, are simply too small, rare, bland, unpalatable, difficult to identify or tough for food, and thus deserve to be ignored.
And then there are those few bothersome, poisonous or even deadly mushrooms, which hog disproportionate, but justified attention. Unfortunately, not every one of these has the bright red cap of the fly agaric, which, like a traffic light forces a screeching halt. Others, like the common and deadly autumn galerina are a fairly non–descript brown and, together with at least four other look–alikes, resemble the honey mushroom. If properly prepared, this abundant fall mushroom is considered good eating and safe for most people, but it is also an extremely variable cosmopolitan, for which reason books often characterize it as "somewhat poisonous" or "choice, with caution."
In this, as in other look–alike scenarios, a beginner is wise to stay on the safe side, by remaining focused on the hard–to–miss mushrooms of group 1. I myself, as a trained mycologist, prefer to abide by this simple rule.
Irrespective of which group of mushrooms you encounter in the woods, all deserve to be appreciated as important components in the natural scheme of things, most importantly for their role in improving soil fertility and plant health. For those loving natural history, they can also be a rich source of wonder.
The world’s largest living organism, for example, is a honey mushroom. Found in 2008 in Oregon’s Malheur National Forest, this "fungus humongous," the king of the third kingdom, stretches 3.5 miles across, covers an area larger than 1,600 football fields — much of it underground — and is estimated to be thousands of years old.
Wisconsin most certainly has some yet to be discovered contenders, but don’t we wish it would be a morel?
Hans G. Schabel, Ph.D., writes from Custer, Wis.