Searching for the Elusive Morel Mushroom in Southern Illinois
– by Gary Marks
“You’ve lived in Southern Illinois how long and have never been morel hunting?”
That is usually the first reaction I receive when I tell someone I’ve always wanted to search for morel mushrooms.
I have in the past looked on the side of the trails while hiking, but never knew what I was truly looking for. Sure I knew what they looked like, but I didn’t know where to look.
That all changed this past week. I had heard talk from others about how they gathered bags of morels and had even seen photos on-line to attest to their findings, but when you start asking questions these previously boastful individuals become unusually silent.
Finding Morel Paradise?
Come to find out, trying to pry prime locations from people is about as hard as pulling teeth with a pair of vice grips. Sometimes though certain things align and the next thing you know your on your first morel hunt.
First, I had to take a code of silence on any and all locations and to not disclose names or individuals. I was, also, blindfolded and spun around in circle, while I was led through a dense forest onto what was called Ground Zero (Alright, I might be exaggerating the part about being blindfolded and all).
Okay, before I go on let me explain what all the hype is about. Here’s a short list of facts and statements about morels.
- Morels in the gourmet world are considered a delicacy.
- Morels grow throughout North America
- Morels can be found around dead elms, poplar trees, old ash and apple trees, and various other places.
- Morels should never be eaten raw because of a natural toxin they produce.
- Morels come in several different varieties. The most common seems to be the yellow morel followed by the grey morel.
- Morels can appear as early as February and have been seen all the way up to June.
- Morels love rain and cool nights followed by warmer temperatures.
- Morels can appear to grow overnight. So a good site can produce morels over and over again during a season.
- Morels have evil cousins called false morels which can be toxic and poisonous. On your first hunt make sure to go with an experienced ‘shroomer and carry a good morel identification book. If you are uncertain whether it is a morel or not, leave it be.
The Unidentified & J.R.R.
As the unidentified person and I walked into the forest. My first thought was this overgrown, brush-ridden environment is home to morel paradise?
We broke up and kept within earshot of each other scouring the dead leaves from last fall. I hunched over to get a closer look at the ground as my back rubbed against the freshly leaved brush. I felt like one of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Hobbits on a manic search for mushrooms. One of my favorite quotes of Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring comes to mind:
All who wander are not lost.
My thoughts return back to the search. I have never been a hunter of wild animals, but I begin to feel the natural thrill of “the chase”. My eyes and mind are open, taking in all sorts of textures and shapes, examining them against their background and trying to distinguish all the minute details.
Jackpot or Morelpot?
Within minutes all this hyper-sensitive perception pays off and a small surge of adrenaline pumps through my veins, as I calmly yell, “I’ve found one!” There it was, what appeared to be a small wrinkly honeycomb structure propped upon its own magnificent pedestal. The unidentified person joined me and pointed out two more morels less than a foot from where I was knelt down. As the saying goes, if it was a snake they would have bit me twice.
I got out my camera and spent well over 15 minutes admiring and photographing what for me were first contacts with a new mushroom species . When I was finished, I plucked them from their home by twisting gently above the base and smiled as my first morel hunt had come to pass.
As we tramped around the forest we would only find a measly eight total. Yes, of the eight only three were fresh, the other five were beyond their prime and some would be culled, but to me that did not matter. What did matter was that I was experiencing my backyard, called the Shawnee National Forest, in a new way.
My hope is that as we all continue our walks through this life that we can find new experiences that expand our knowledge, understanding, and pleasure of our natural surroundings, so that we may pass our passions and interests to the next generation.
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The following video I found very informative and helpful. Although it was produced in Missouri, this information pertains to us in Southern Illinois.
Word of Caution
Mushrooms can be a dangerous bunch, eating the wrong types of mushrooms can lead to sickness and/or death. It is important that you seek out expert knowledge on the subject of edible and poisonous mushrooms. If you are uncertain, leave it alone is always the best policy. Turkey and morel hunting seasons overlap so make sure to visit Illinois Department of Natural Resources website for more information.
The following is a small list of websites that can give you more information on morel mushrooms.
- Wikipedia – General Info.
- The Great Morel – More detailed info with a nice Q & A section.
- Mushroom Appreciation.com – Good info on how to identify false morels.
- Missouri Department of Conservation – How to identify edible mushrooms.
- AmericanMushrooms.com – More info on morels and how to identify and what to avoid.
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