BY JAMES GERCHY, OUTDOORS WRITER | SPECIAL TO TOWNSQUARE MEDIA


 

Did you know we have an official state mushroom?

The Morchella esculenta, or commonly known as the morel, was adopted as the official mushroom of the state of Minnesota in 1984.

Not only is the morel famous, it is considered a delicacy by many amateur mycologists. Each spring these ‘pickers’ comb forests and field in search of the unmistakable ‘sponge mushroom’. There are also a few look-alikes called ‘false morels’ that, according to the University of Minnesota website can cause ‘gastrointestinal stress and should be avoided’. Most seasoned mushroom hunters will tell you, “When in doubt, throw it out”.

If you plan on foraging for morels this spring, make sure you familiarize yourself with what they look like. It may help to go with someone experienced for the first few times. Expect to be blindfolded so you can’t backtrack on them. Morel hunters are more protective of their spots than most fishermen I know.

The morel season in Minnesota usually begins in April in Southern Minnesota and ends sometime in June in northern Minnesota, depending on the growing conditions. Veteran ‘shroomers’ will tell you the first sign of blooming lilacs and dandelions are an indication that the morels will be up and ready for picking.

Morels can be found in a variety of landscapes, but are commonly found growing under and around decaying elm trees. Some pickers claim a southern exposure that warms first in spring make great spots to find morels. Some successful mushroom hunters target burned areas or freshly logged areas.

Once you locate a patch, use a knife to slice of the morels at the soil level. Use an onion bag so as you carry them through the woods the spores get sprinkled about. This ensures next year’s crop of morels.

Experienced morel hunters keep their favorite patches a secret, since they usually produce each year. It is for that same reason that they avoid removing all the mushrooms from one area and leave some for ‘seed’.

The science behind why morels grow where they grow is mostly unknown. There are many factors that affect mushroom growth, and it is anybody’s guess as to when and where they will grow. That’s what makes finding them even more special.

If you are successful at foraging for morels, you’ll want to take proper care of them. Check inside and out for insects, brush off the surface debris. If you plan on using them soon after harvest store in a cool, dry location. Don’t soak them in water. Refrigerators work great, but make sure your mushrooms are dry prior to storage.

Some people use food dehydrators to dry them for future use.
Some morel aficionados rinse them with cold water and spread them out on cookie sheets to freeze them individually. They take them off the sheets and place them in an airtight container and place them in the freezer until they are ready to be used.

There are many ways to prepare morels as a main dish or used in place of store-bought mushrooms. The simplest of which is sautéed in their own juice over high heat with a pat of butter added towards the end of cooking. Salt and pepper to taste and you will enjoy a true umami delicacy.

There is a Facebook page created just for Minnesota morel hunters. Here you’ll find hours of scrolling through posts of successful morel excursions, plenty of pictures, great storage tips, recipes, and plenty of sharing of dates marking the first sightings of the springtime treasures. Just don’t ask anyone where they found them. Did I mention that morel hunters are very protective of their spots?

Finding your own places to look for morels is not difficult. Just plan on covering lots of ground. Besides, nothing beats a walk in the forest on a nice spring day. Mushroom picking is allowed on state forest lands for private use only. Scientific and Natural areas are off-limits to all pickers. Commercial pickers are limited to private lands. Please make sure you have permission of the landowner to avoid trespassing. Some landowners may find it amusing that you want to look for mushrooms on their property and will grant permission.

Regardless if you hunt on public or private land, just remember to treat the land with respect. Don’t drive in soft areas to avoid ruts, leave gates as you found them, and don’t leave garbage scattered around. You would be surprised how many people disrespect others property but you won’t be surprised how fast that land gets posted to ‘no trespassing’.