Last weekend Master Forager Larry Moran and I ventured out to hunt morel mushrooms in the woods near Peachland, BC. As it turns out, we should have called this event a foraging hike rather than a mushroom hunt as we found many growing wild food items to try. The spring wildflowers and blossoms were bursting. The birds were active. When the trees begin to show their leaves the mushrooms are not far behind. We head up into the woods, windows down listening to the sound of red neck thunder (aka gunfire), looking for the perfect spot. We had barely stepped out of the truck and I almost stepped on a morel. Jumping up for joy, I found our first mushroom.
In many parts of the world, morel mushrooms are considered a delicacy. Great chefs pine over them and people will pay up to $30 per pound for at the farmers market. To find these mushrooms and to successfully return from the hunt, requires the ability to understand their habitats and to navigate safely into the forest and ability to see through camouflage. You must get what we call a hunting eye honed to the visual image of a morel. The good eating that comes with a successful hunt is the prize that motivates me to explore for mushrooms.
Morels can appear in old soft fruit orchards, forests recovering from burn, but in much of the Okanagan Valley, they appear in forests of elm, aspen, spruce, and poplar. Describing the habitat for morels can be a challenge. They will grow wherever they want to, but there are some generalizations possible. It is important when picking to keep your head up and looking at the trees surrounding you. Once you find that perfect grove with a few aspens, perfect elevation, direct sunlight, you may find a morel. Morel mushrooms can live for a while without a connection to a tree, but that they do better when they tap into tree rootlets. When the tree dies suddenly, like in a forest fire, the mushroom is stressed over the loss of its food supply and produces fruit in an effort to disperse spores in the air that can travel to more hospitable environments.
Morels grow from the ground. They do not grow in trees or from logs like many other mushrooms. The Russian olive tree, which I recently discovered, is a great habitat for morels. Once you see the tree, look around. Note that if you find one mushroom, there are probably more, so focus more closely on the ground all around the find. Morels are one of the easier mushrooms to identify, like a honeycomb made by the world’s sloppiest bees. Can the morel be confused with a poisonous variety? Yes, the head of a true morel is attached to the stem for its entire length. The false morels have caps that are separate from the stem at the bottom so they look more like an actual cap sitting around the stem.
Given that we were in a coniferous forest, we found many pine cones on the ground. In an upright position, the cones appear nearly identical to a morel. A different perspective definitely helps. We came across a strange looking morel. It was shaped like a witch’s hat and spiraled up to the tip. Usually infested with small bugs with a soft stem. Avoid these ones as they are not pleasant.
This adventure simply requires some exploration on your own. We spent the better part of the morning finding only a couple morels before dropping lower to find more. A hundred feet elevation can make a big difference. Stepping lightly around the soft ground and looking under each overturned leaf, counting 10, 20 and up to 71 morels in one spot. "Look there!" Larry kept saying. "Look over here!"
Among the spots of morel mushrooms, we discovered many other edibles. Spruce fir tips, stinging nettle, pineapple chamomile, mustard flower, fairy ring mushrooms, jelly fungus, and the verpa mushroom (the early morel). Verpas appear early in the spring and continues to fruit during the true morel season. The verpa mushroom has a long stem with a small head and usually has a cotton-candy like whisps of flesh inside, whereas the true morel has a hollow center. They are not poisonous, but are best left behind as the true morel will grow in the same area within the next short while.
Some might find this foraging passion all a bit far afield. Everywhere people are infatuated with the idea of foraging for food. People are insatiably curious about this. Like me, I want to join master foragers on a foray and pour over their own experiences. These encounters have proven to me that there is a hunger for the perennial Easter egg hunt living secretly in the hearts of most all of us.By Mia Papadopoulos