Out-Doors: ‘Tis morel in the mind

Mushroom-hunting season is upon us

By Elizabeth Bassett | Contributor

Mother’s Day dawned gray like oh-so-many recent mornings. At 6 a.m. the mercury outside my kitchen window stood at 56 degrees. By midday, as our group of mushroom hunters gathered in East Charlotte, a chill north wind at 42 degrees knifed through our thin gloves and rain jackets. Arthur Hynes, whose email signature is “Funguy rising,” had suggested we wear waterproof boots and bring “a basket or bag, a small folding knife and your mushroom ID book, if you have one; a few smaller paper bags in a City Market-type bag works well to separate what we find. I’ll have binoculars also.”

Like six Little Red Riding Hoods—toting baskets, knives, bags, books and high hopes— we traipsed across the field to a copse of trees surrounding a giant elm stump. May is morel season, a “choice” mushroom in the lingo of aficionados. That means that morels are not only edible but also tasty. “The season is short,” Arthur said, “and you never know where you will find morels, but around dead elm trees is a good bet.” Many mushrooms have a symbiotic relationship with particular trees. The mushroom is connected by underground strands or rhizomes to the rootlets of a tree to the benefit of both.

After 15 fruitless minutes of searching, Andy said, “I’m feeling pretty silly—I brought six paper bags so that I could separate all the varieties of mushrooms I would find!” Meanwhile, we marveled at the prevalence of wild parsnip. Ruby, Cathy and I compared notes on the nether reaches where we recently had removed embedded ticks.

Arthur thought there might be good pickings near the Richmond-Hinesburg Road so we hopped into our cars. We stopped at a farmhouse where Arthur asked the owners for permission to hunt mushrooms. Then into the woods we wandered, knives, containers and guidebooks at the ready. Dead elms abounded, as did roadside trash. It being Green-Up weekend, Cathy carried a green bag, and before long it was full of beer bottles, hubcaps and shattered car parts. But still no mushrooms. We admired Indian pokeweed, or false hellebore, and horsetails. Suki told us she used to scrub dishes with horsetails when she lived in a teepee. “Full of silica,” said she. Who knew!

With still-empty bags and baskets, the group continued north to prospect along the Winooski River. We found dryad saddles, a.k.a. polyporus squamosus. “They have a good subtle flavor,” Cathy Hunter said. We also found some perfect fiddleheads along the river. Arthur’s mushroom book of choice is the Audubon Field Guide to Mushrooms, and Cathy carried her Mushroom Picker’s Foolproof Field Guide by Peter Jordan. The latter is not as encyclopedic as the Audubon guide but has large pages with big color photographs, helpful for novices with little confidence in their identification skills.

At the end of the day, the only morels we discovered were in my very own perennial garden. Had I not recently bought a mushroom guide in preparation for Arthur’s Mother’s Day foray, I would not have noticed something so special hiding in plain sight. Nor, without Arthur’s identification, had the nerve to taste them! “At least now we know the morels are up,” Arthur said. “The season is about two weeks long.” I can guess what Arthur will be doing next weekend.

Mushrooming is not for amateurs—at least not if you plan to eat them. Burlington-based foragers Ari Rockland-Miller and Jenna Antonino DeMare host workshops and lead walks (themushroomforager.com). In past years they have conducted workshops at Red Wagon Plants, Shelburne Farms, Middlebury College, NOFA conferences and the Horticultural Society of New York. The Mushroom Foragers lead excursions that are scheduled to coincide with peak foraging conditions. Their 2016 schedule is on the website, as is their blog, the ForageCast, which keeps readers abreast of gourmet and medicinal species that are in season in the Northeast. Their goal is to “teach people to make their forays targeted so they know when, where and how to look for species they enjoy and are confident.”

Happy hunting!