This article was originally written for Edible Upcountry Magazine.
At an undisclosed location in Upstate South Carolina, heavy spring morning dew clings to the delicate chickweed sprigs that blanket the forest floor. The outstretched arms of old growth hardwoods reach toward the open sky, their fingers dotted with young green and pink leaf buds. The sun rises above the west-facing ridge, sending beams of warm light darting over the forest floor, illuminating the gossamer spider tapestries throughout the understory.
The pure majesty of this natural canvas elicits the sense that one has been magically transported into a Monet painting. However, the small group walking through this spring wonderland is seeking more than just a visual feast. They are on the hunt for one of the most coveted and rare gourmet fungi in the world: the morel mushroom.
As two of these foragers, my wife and I are torn between sharing our passion for fungi with the uninitiated and “telling too much to the outsiders.” As best as we can tell, our fellow foragers—who include software developers, chefs, plant geneticists and “permanently proudly unemployable”—have only three things in common: quirky personalities, a love of food and a deep curiosity about nature. There is a code of ethics that one has to adhere to in order to be part of this group of fungi-lovers. Giving away the location of a favorite, shared morel foraging spot or filling the woods with heavy-footed newcomers would be grounds for excommunication… or worse. In the case of the most egregious violation of trust, one might expect to awake and find the severed head of an Amanita ocreata (the aptly named “Destroying Angel” mushroom) lying next to them in bed as a warning.
So, before divulging any more information about morel mushrooms or the thousands of other delicious wild foods that fill the forests and meadows of our lush region of the country, let us sound a few notes of caution.
First, eating wild foods that you’ve improperly identified can kill you. Second, morels are not easy to find even after you’re relatively familiar with the type of terrain and trees they associate with. Third, refer to the first point: you can easily die (or wish you were dead) if you eat a wild plant or mushroom that you shouldn’t have.
Now that we’ve dispensed with those pleasantries, let’s continue on our foraging adventure…
The hunt for the elusive morel mushroom only takes place in our area for about one month per year in the early spring. The soil temperatures must be in the mid to upper 50′s, which usually means the daytime temperatures have begun reaching into the 70s.
For the old-timers who spurn such modern technologies as soil thermometers or the internet, the saying is that when the tulip poplar buds are the “size of a squirrel’s ear,” then you’d best visit your secret spots and start looking for morels.
Admittedly, we’ve never actually measured the size of a squirrel’s ear nor are we technology-averse, so we usually check in with the online communities of equally obsessed morel foragers in central Georgia whose month of bliss starts 2-3 weeks before ours. As the online US soil temperature maps show our area slowly creeping towards the ideal range, we check the ground in the woods with our own soil thermometer, just to be certain.
When all conditions are ideal and a drenching rain comes through, it’s not uncommon for the dedicated morel forager to cancel all their “trivial” social obligations (work, weddings, family birthdays, etc) as the hunt for culinary treasure begins.
Morel mushrooms, which are the small fruiting bodies of the large underground organism, are virtually impossibly to cultivate—although we’re trying to do so on our small urban farm—since they grow by forming symbiotic mycorrhizal relationships with certain tree species. The tree’s roots provide the morel with a steady meal of sugary carbohydrates and the mushroom’s massive underground mycelial web vastly increases the tree root’s nutrient and water uptake, while also connecting them to other trees in the forest network. Or, as we like to say, the tree gets “super roots” and the mushroom gets a “sugar daddy.”
Interestingly, this symbiotic mycorrhizal relationship is not unique; it’s estimated that 95% of all the world’s plants rely on similar relationships with fungi for their health and survival. When you eat a mycorrhizal mushroom like a morel, it’s a flavorful reminder that you’re not simply a solo virtuoso musician. You’re part of a timeless planetary chorus whose complexity and beauty is beyond imagination.
As a morel forager, you are choosing to become a part of these relationships, and you have a responsibility to respect and understand the other partners. For instance, we use a porous basket (not a plastic bag) while gathering morels in order to help spread their spores to new trees as we forage. We cut the stump of the morel rather than ripping it out of the ground to reduce the likelihood of damaging the colony. Perhaps equally important, after cooking our wild fungal harvest, we cherish each taste knowing what it is, where it came from and that we were fortunate enough to be part of it all.
In the Appalachian region, the morel’s favorite tree partners are Tulip Poplars, Ash and American Elm trees, the latter of which have been almost completely killed off by Dutch Elm Disease. While this is a sad state of affairs for the Elm trees and forest biodiversity, it’s great for morel foragers. Dead or dying elm trees trigger the mushroom to fruit prolifically in order to send its spores out in a desperate search for a new home.
Some of our best morel spots are riddled with the huge skeletons of these magnificent old hardwoods. On the soil surface above the invisible tracks of the tree’s underground root systems, patches of morels the size of quart bottles can occasionally be found. These moments are pure ecstasy for the morel forager.
The Upstate is home to many old growth forests with low-lying flood plains and river basins that make an ideal home for morels. We’ve found at least three distinct subspecies within an hour of Greenville: tulip morels, half-free morels and, our personal favorite due to its large size, M. esculenta or yellow morels. Regardless of the variety, our palates are unable to detect any significant differences in the unique, sweet-earthy flavor that earned these fungi their culinary fame.
In some of our best foraging spots, we’ve come away with dozens of pounds of morels in just a few hours. However, there have also been times when we’ve spent an entire day searching and walked away without a single one. We’ve found that it helps to assign blame to your spouse when those moments of disappointment occur.
Thankfully, the woods abound with a host of other goodies during the early spring, so we never have to go home empty-handed, even if we have no morels to show for our efforts.
Growth tips from various species of smilax (aka “briers”) taste like asparagus and can be eaten raw or cooked. Many forest floors where we hunt morels are often covered in a thick, verdant blanket of chickweed. This “weed” was once highly regarded as a nutritious, spring crop for Native Americans and early European settlers alike, due to its abundance, pleasant flavor and health benefits. Today, many modern homeowners spray chickweed with highly toxic herbicides to keep it from blemishing their perfectly coifed, inedible monoculture turf grass yards before going to a grocery store to buy greens grown in another country. The light, silken texture and sweet nectar accent of viola and wisteria flowers make a perfect topping on a spring greens salad or as a garnish on a main dish.
The proverbial “gold” these foods provide at the end of a day in the woods comes in the form of unforgettable adventures with friends and family, food that satisfies to the core, and a profound sense of connection to the web of life that human language is incapable of fully conveying. It is a treasure diminished by hoarding and enriched through sharing with friends and strangers alike—and it is freely available to anyone willing to listen, learn and look.
If you happen to stumble upon other morel foragers in the woods, please don’t tell them that we inspired you to start your journey into wild, native foods. If they come to believe that our moral failings (publicly disclosing this information) leads to their morel failings (smaller harvests), we might be in real trouble. Plus, we’ll already have plenty of explaining to do once they read this article.