Morel madness: Slim pickings this year

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BIG PRAIRIE, Ohio — During a normal Ohio spring, morels begin to pop up around the third week of April. They peak around Mother’s Day. However, 2012 has not been a typical year.

The combination of a unusually warm winter, a hot dry spring, followed by cold weather made for slim pickings of the coveted fungi this season.

Varieties

There are many varieties of morel (morchella) or “sponge mushrooms.” They all share the common characteristic of a tan, hollow stem, topped by an attached “cone” which is ridged or pitted.

In the book, The Curious Morel, Larry Lonek notes morels “look like miniature Christmas trees poking out of the leafy forest mat.”

“Grays” or “blacks” are the first to appear. They can range from very tiny to anywhere up to 4 inches in height. These are followed by the “yellows” which are generally 2 to 5 inches tall but can be up to 13 inches or even more in height.

The last of the season are the giant white, or “big foot.”

Growing

Morels can grow almost anywhere in nearly every state in the U.S., as well as Canada.

Usual habitat is rich woods near dead or dying elm and ash trees, old apple orchards and wooded pastures.

Cooking

All morels must be thoroughly cooked and never eaten raw. If you don’t know what you are picking, you should go with someone knowledgeable or at the very least, let them examine your yield before consuming.

“False morels” (verpa) can be slightly toxic if ingested in large quantities. They have a long, pithy, hollow stem topped with a ridged cap that looks like a skirt.

This type of spring mushroom is common and easily seen, as they can grow up to 8 inches tall. Another type of false morel (gyromitra), which are fairly uncommon, are poisonous.

These mimic a true morel in appearance but have ridged caps, not the pitted caps like true morels. Gyrometra come in a light tan to a dark liver hue. Common names are “brains” or “beefsteaks.”

If you don’t enjoy the spring ritual of hiking through the woods in search of the elusive goodies, Jim Garver, produce manager at Mt. Hope Auction, said, “The morels are not as plentiful as last year, but we sold 70-80 plates on Wednesday.

“A plate is less than a pound. The cost per pound has been between $40 to $45. We may still have some next week, although it looks like the season is near the end. But someone may bring some in from Michigan for example.”

Gathering

When gathering morels, use a mesh bag. Kyle Maurer, student at Hocking College said, “Never use a plastic bag. Always use something that allows spores to fall out to seed next year’s crop. One morel contains millions of spores. I double up two potato bags, but you can buy a specially designed trademarked Spore Bag online from http://www.teammorel.com.”

When picking morels, cut the stem with a sharp knife at ground level. Do not pull them up by the root or they will not grow again the next year. Also, try dumping the water used to soak them under an apple tree. It may take a few years, but you may be lucky enough to have a morel or two in your backyard some day.

For more information on morels or wild mushrooms, go to the North American Mycological Association website at www.namyco.org.

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