Finding the first morels of spring is a highly anticipated event among mushroom hunters.
“Finding that first morel is my most anticipated thing of the year,” said Steven Russell, owner of the Hoosier Mushroom Company, an online purveyor of at-home mushroom growing kits.
The kits, which are sold at Bloomingfoods under the name Mycota, include popular favorites like shitakes and oyster mushrooms, as well as lesser-known types like hen of the woods and lion’s mane.
Morels, however, only grow in the wild. “Some mushrooms grow by decomposing organic matter; others grow by having an association with the roots of certain kinds of trees,” Russell said.
Morels are the latter, and only certain trees fit the bill. So if you spend your time searching under oaks and hickories, you will very likely come home empty-handed. You’ll fare better looking around elm, ash, sycamore, and cottonwood trees.
“The best morel hunters are as much tree hunters as they are mushroom hunters,” Russell said.
Although Indiana’s morel season generally takes place in April, the exact start can be difficult to predict. The mushrooms need the earth to be sufficiently warm to begin “fruiting,” or emerging from the ground, and this year’s March cold front is expected to push the beginning of morel season back a bit.
Precipitation has a major effect on the season as well. “Usually the wetter the weather’s been, the better it is. It looks like it’s going to be a pretty good season this year,” said Russell, recalling that the dry and hot spring made for a pretty sparse season last year.
Dedicated mushroom hunters have been known to follow the mushroom season from south to north as spring arrives; a few serious devotees start in Georgia and work their way up, while others go camping in Michigan for a few days or weeks in May to see what they can find after the Indiana season winds down.
Russell tries to go up to Michigan every couple years, enticed by the chance to spend a few days in search of the “mother lode,” a huge amount of morels all in one place.
“If you find the right location that people haven’t been to yet, you can find five pounds under a certain tree,” said Russell.
Some hunters sell what they can’t eat; others, like Russell, give extras to friends and freeze the rest. Russell’s favorite preparation of the mushrooms is also the simplest and most popular; he likes them lightly breaded and fried in butter.
Many people would be nervous to eat mushrooms they’d found themselves. Russell, who currently serves as president of the Hoosier Mushroom Society, said that one of his primary goals when working with the public is to help distribute knowledge that will take the guesswork out of mushroom hunting and dispel unnecessary fear.
“There’s a lot of misinformation about mushrooms out there — people hear that they’re going to kill you, they’re deadly poisonous or they’re going to make you hallucinate. They’re really mysterious to most people,” said Russell.
But you don’t have to degree in mycology to recognize safe and delicious local fungi. “A little knowledge can go a long way in terms of identifying most types of mushrooms,” Russell said.
All of this and more will be discussed during the many workshops held during the Simply Music, Simply Mushrooms–Morel Festival, scheduled for April 19th and 20th at the Bill Monroe Music Park in Brown County.
Russell has been helping with marketing for the festival and is organizing guided morel-hunting forays to help newcomers learn to identify morels and the environments that they prefer.
Morel hunters are known for being guarded about their favorite mushroom hunting spots, but Russell says he has no plans on giving anyone’s secrets away.
“We’re guiding people into the woods, but not with any one particular place in mind where we know where they are. That’s part of the fun, having to look for them a little bit,” he said.
The festival, which will include a variety of bands in addition to workshops on mushroom hunting, forays, morel-related merchandise, and a morel-hunting contest, will serve as a chance for dyed-in-the-wool morel hunters to get together.
“Mushroom hunters like to talk mushrooms, if not give away their locations,” Russell said.
And for newcomers, it will be an opportunity to discover a family-friendly and time-honored Hoosier tradition.
“Morel hunting is just about having a good time out in nature,” Russell said.
by Laura Gleason