Outdoors: The Morel of the Story

Steve Gilliland
Special to the Globe

I used this story once before, but given the amount of chatter on Facebook lately about mushrooms and mushroom hunting, it seemed appropriate and fitting to reuse it.

Joyce and I agree on important stuff, like what temperature the house should be and what color socks I should wear with what pants, but from there, we go in different directions, especially when it comes to food. I like mushrooms and she can barely bring herself to say the word.

Although Kansas is not known for its mushroom hunting, morel mushrooms can be found here, and the recent showers followed by warm spring days should bring them out. I’m not an avid or seasoned morel hunter, but I remember a trip I took several springs ago with a local morel hunting legend.

When I started this adventure, I was aware that dyed-in-the-wool mushroom hunters would just as soon give away their favorite deer stand or rat out their own mother as they would divulge their mushroom honey-holes, so I wasn’t surprised when my host for that evening insisted on anonymity for both himself and our location.

My choices were simple; forget who he was and where we were, or ride blindfolded in the trunk of his car. Since I hate blindfolds and the trunk of his car was the bed of his old pickup, I choose the former. I will tell you however that we were somewhere south of Nebraska.

We parked and walked up a rutted sandy drive that wound through acres of every kind of cover imaginable, from dry knee-high grass and 3-foot dogwoods to 60-foot cottonwoods and everything between.

The common denominator was leaf litter which covered every inch of soil. My host, whom I’ll dub “Hawkeye” for reasons that will become apparent, began to school me in “Morel Mushrooms 101.”

As for location, the sandier the soil and the sunnier the spot the better. It seems morels like the soil damp but not too wet. They often prefer somewhat open areas, but not always. We found some of ours in dense cover, often crawling around on our hands and knees.

In other words, conditions have to be just right and only the mushrooms can determine that. He ended this part of the class with the prophetic statement “You just find them where you find them,” adding that morels can often be found in the same spots year after year.

We stepped off the drive and headed toward a spot in the woods where “Hawkeye” had found mushrooms in the past. He had hunted deer in this area for over 30 years and knew the terrain like the back of his hand. He found the spot, but no mushrooms.

As we walked on, we began to discuss the finer points of morel mushroom reproduction. Morels reproduce from spores which are scattered and distributed mostly by the wind, and no, the old wives tale suggesting they grow totally overnight is not true.

My research found they can grow from spore to fully grown in a very few days, depending on conditions, but not merely overnight. “Hawkeye” said he had learned to look along fence lines and tree rows that run in such a direction as to catch the prevailing wind, evidently capturing and holding the wind-borne spores.

Since morel reproduction is so “iffy” their spongy body is purposely designed for holding the maximum number of spores for dispersion.

We had walked only a short distance farther when “Hawkeye” stopped and pointed 30 feet or so ahead of us.

“There’s some,” he stated rather matter-of-factly, (I was doing good to see the ground that far away) and sure enough, in a small clearing ahead, several small Morel Mushrooms pointed skyward. We cut them off just above the ground and moved on.

Awhile latter I found him staring intently into a small open spot several feet ahead beneath a tangle of vines. “You should find five in there before you’re through” he stated before walking on. On hands and knees, I crawled under the vines, knowing “Hawkeye” was toying with me…Having added the 5 mushrooms to my bag I crawled out the other side with new found respect for both his eyesight and sincerity! We ended the evening with two nice “messes” of fresh spring morel mushrooms.

As a novice to both harvesting and preparing morels, I’ll tell you what works well for my host. They need to be soaked in salt water for awhile to help clean them and rid them of pests, but just before you’re ready to prepare them, as they will get soggy. Soak them just long enough to do the job, say 30 minutes.

After cleaning and soaking, slice each one lengthways into thirds (or quarters if large enough) them dredge each piece in a mixture of egg and milk, roll them in flour or your favorite coating and fry them in butter or oil like fish until golden brown.

Each time I write about another crop to harvest from the Kansas outdoors, I think I’ve seen them all, but each time I find I’ve merely scratched the surface!

Continue to Explore Kansas Outdoors.

Steve can be contacted by email at stevenrgilliland@gmail.com