March is the start of morel season, so learn the facts about mushroom hunting before it's time to start digging.
A MUSHROOM HUNT CAN YIELD TASTY RESULTS-AS LONG AS YOU'RE NOT AFRAID TO DO A LITTLE DIGGING.
SQUARE PHOTOS: JOHN PLISCHKE
You're crawling through the woods on your hands and knees, eyes are focused on the ground. You're alert, patiently searching for the treasure. Finally, you spot it: a mushroom.
Today's mushroom hunters are known as mycologists, and they take their quest seriously. Starting in the spring, fans of morels, chanterelles and other delicate species spend their weekends hiking through the woods, staring intently at the ground. Any foodie worth their Microplane is now on the hunt for rare and delicious fungi.
Hunting the tasty morsels has become so popular, in fact, that mushroom clubs are springing up across the country. According to Ike Forester, president of the North American Mycological Association, "We have over 2,000 members and 70 affiliated clubs, and most of them are looking for people with whom to share their passion for mushrooms."
Local clubs are great resources; they often provide guides that include valuable information, like where to hunt. Even so, be aware that asking a seasoned mushroom hunter where to search is like asking an angler to divulge his favorite fishing hole. "You must understand that mushroom hunters are a jealous lot and do not like to reveal their favorite spots," says Dr. Marc Donsky, president of the Colorado Mycological Society. "But I will tell you that near Denver, there are some good places to start, like the Mt. Evans area (110 miles from Denver) or the Boulder Canyon area (27 miles from Denver)."
If you're farther east, near St. Louis, look up Patrick Harvey. He has been a member of the Missouri Mycological Society for five years and can share some helpful secrets. "In this area, we mainly look for mushrooms growing around the root-bases of trees, particularly elm trees, but they also grow around ash, maples and cottonwoods. Depending on the time of year, I might suggest you try the area near Mark Twain Lake near Hannibal (116 miles from St. Louis), or out near Cuivre River State Park, close to Troy (56 miles from St. Louis)."
Local clubs can also teach you how to pack for a foray. For starters, bring a basket and either wax or brown paper bags to collect your treasures (plastic hastens deterioration). They also recommend bringing a guidebook with pictures of the different types of mushrooms and a pocketknife in case your finds need to be cut. Bruce Boyer of the Mycological Association of Washington, DC, advises to keep the weather in mind and have decent shoes. Those who like to go the extra mile, preparation-wise, can bring a big walking stick; magnifying glass; gloves to protect against poison ivy; tight clothing to keep ticks away; a compass; and a map.
So why is mushroom hunting surging in popularity? Mary Woehrel, president of the Mushroom Club of Georgia, says, "It's due in part to the green movement. You can make a meal out of something you find in the woods, and it is natural and organic. We attract wildflower lovers, gardeners, photographers and bird watchers."
Woehrel notes that hunting for your own mushrooms is also economical. While most mushrooms sold in markets are commercially cultivated, the wild ones are the most prized. With the costs of wild dried morel mushrooms soaring to as much as $65 per pound, it's easy to understand why so many people are hunting their own. "We can go into the woods and get a basket of fresh mushrooms for free; the same amount might be $25 at the market. And besides, it's just plain fun," Woehrel says.
The cost factor is only part of the intrigue. For David Rust, cofounder of the Bay Area Mycological Society, it's more about being surrounded by nature. "For us, it's all about going to beautiful forests, traveling to new places, being alone in the woods and familiarizing ourselves with new trees and plants," he says.
For others, the search itself is the attraction. Renate Rikkers, a member of the Asheville Mushroom Club, one of the largest clubs in North Carolina, explains her fascination: "It's like a treasure hunt. You never know if they will be there or not. They respond to the weather, and if there is a drought, there are no mushrooms."
Adds Woehrel, "You don't just run out and find them. It's a challenge. The weather and rainfall have to be just right for them to appear. I find it mysterious, beautiful and bizarre."
Warning: Contents may be poisonous.
While hunting mushrooms can be an exhilarating challenge, eating the wrong one can make you sick or even kill you. Marilyn Shaw, mycology consultant for the Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center and a member of the Colorado Mycological Society, offers some rules to follow:
If in doubt, throw it out.
• Stay away from LBMs (little brown mushrooms), as they include many poisonous species that are difficult to distinguish from the edible species.
• Don't eat too much of any mushroom that you haven't eaten before, because it's possible to have an allergy to one particular species.
• Be suspicious of any mushroom with warts, scales or raised projections on its cap. It could be a poisonous amanita. These often have white gills, a ring around the stem and a bulb on the bottom.
• Be careful to avoid false morels; one kind includes a chemical compound that is also found in rocket fuel.
LEARN THE PARTS OF A FUNGUS TO IDENTIFY IT CORRECTLY.