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April and Morel Mania is in the Air!
by Phil Taunton
Puffball, Shaggy Mane, Bearded Tooth, Inky Cap and Oyster! No, these are not the names of the guys I hang around with at the golf course, or wasted many a rainy day with down at the old Mitway pool hall on Commercial Street. These are not even nicknames of any BNSF-Santa Fe railroaders I know–even though some of my co-workers bear a close resemblance. These are the names of edible mushrooms.Each spring when the weather gets warm and humid, my mind gets to wandering toward “rooning” and eating a mess of those tasty morels. The gentle sport of mushroom hunting is a fine excuse to walk in the woods. When the leaves on the red bud trees are about the size of squirrel’s ears, or when asparagus starts to emerge is prime time for morels if you believe in folklore.I must warn you though, because a few wild mushrooms are deadly and many more are mildly poisonous, mushroom hunting is not a hobby for the careless or uninformed. On the other hand, neither is it the death-defying feat that many people imagine. There are a number of good edible mushrooms that are easy to recognize and hard to confuse with anything poisonous.All edible mushrooms are distinctive in some obvious way or another. Once you learn their distinguishing features, they will be hard to confuse with any dangerously poisonous types. Remember that where and when a mushroom grows can be very important in identifying it.The most popular wild mushroom in , easy to recognize and delicious to eat is the morel. They are also called the sponge, pinecone or honeycomb mushroom. The surface of a morel is covered with definite pits and ridges, and the bottom edge of the cap (this is very important to remember) is attached directly to the stem. Size may vary from 2″ to 12″ tall and most will be pear or pyramid shape, although I once found one that was round and as big as a softball! KansasThere are three common species of morels: the common, the black or smoky and the half-free. In order not to confuse a beginning “rooner” and to be on the safe side, I only deal with the common. When young, this morel has white ridges and dark brown pits and is known as the “white morel.” As it ages, both the ridges and the pits turn yellow-brown, and it becomes a “yellow morel.” If conditions are right, the “yellow morel” can grow into a “giant morel,” which may be up to a foot tall provided a deer or some other critter doesn’t eat it first.Morels can be found from spring to early summer. I found the softball sized morel on May 8, but I forgot where. Imagine that! Mushrooners are secretive about where they roam! Morels are found on the ground, not on logs or growing on trees and in a variety of habitats, including moist woodlands and in river bottoms. I found a great number of them in a pasture around some dead cottonwood trees after the grass had been burnt off. Wifeus once dragged me off on a mushroom hunting expedition that turned into a death march. This trek took us across most of Morris Countyand wasn’t very fruitful until we returned to the cabin on . There, we stumbled into a big mess not 100 yards from my favorite sofa. “They are where they are!” Council Grove City LakeSome experienced rooners claim they can smell them. Pigs are used to find and root up truffles in . Does anyone have a mushroom dog? FranceMorels are quite distinctive, but there is a small chance they could be confused with false morels. Some people can eat the false morel, but for others, it causes serious illness and even death.To prepare morels for the table, you should half or quarter them and check for insects. Wash carefully. They can be stewed, baked, creamed or stuffed with dressing. I like to dip them in egg and milk, then dredge the pieces in seasoned flour and fry until crispy. Contrary to what a lot of people think, mushrooms can be frozen and used at a later date. Clean them just like you would for the table, flash freeze on a cookie sheet, and then store the pieces in a zip-lock freezer bag. Dip, batter and fry while they are still frozen.Your lips will think they fell in love. “I garontee you!”To avoid mushroom poisoning, you should follow these five rules:1. Identify each and every mushroom you collect, and eat only those whose identification you are sure of. When in doubt, throw it out.2. Strictly avoid any mushroom that looks parasol-shaped with white gills. Also avoid all little brown mushrooms and all false morels.3. Some people are allergic to even the safest mushrooms. The first time you try one, eat only a small amount and wait 24 hours before eating more.4. Eat only firm, fresh, undecayed mushrooms.5. Most wild mushrooms should not be eaten raw or in large quantities, since they are difficult to digest.What is a mushroom? Mushrooms are actually the fruits of a fungus. The fungus itself is simply a net of threadlike fibers, called a mycelium, growing in soil, wood or decaying matter. I liken them to potatoes on a vine.The function of a mushroom is to produce spores, which are the “seeds” of the fungus. Some kinds of mushrooms produce their spores on gills, some in pores, some inside a leathery pouch(the puffball) some on the inside of shallow cups (the morel) and some simply on the surface of the mushroom. The spores form on these various structures, then fall off to blow away on the wind or be carried by animals, water or insects. If a spore lands in a suitable spot, it germinates and grows into a new mycelium.