And yet, notwithstanding the probing of science and the experience of all those who have gathered wild morels, the fungus has guarded its secrets. That, too, is part of our affinity to them. They will not be understood, nor easily domesticated. They will not submit to life in our gardens.
There are five kingdoms of living things: monera, including blue-green algae and bacteria; protists, or single-celled creatures; animals; plants; and fungi. Some organisms do not fit neatly in just one kingdom, but those are of little interest to anyone in search of a wild delicacy that will absorb butter in a cast-iron skillet.
Within the fungi kingdom there are molds, yeasts and mushrooms. Fungi feed on dead organic matter. Some prefer animal matter, but most grow on plant matter. Fortunately, the morel prefers plant matter. It is a sedentary grazer that derives nourishment from decaying trees, leaves, grass and other plant parts. Without fungi like the morel, our woodlands would be head-high in debris.
All that may sound like so much Biology 101, but for those of us who find folklore wanting in answering the questions of when and where to find morels, science offers an alternative. There are clues in the driest scientific writing at least as useful as watching for bullsnakes crossing the road. So bear with a bit of rambling biology, and eventually it will lead back to moldering leaf beds on Missouri River bluffs and bur oak bottoms along the Niobrara where our quarry grows.
Mycologists, the scientists who specialize in the study of fungi, believe the morel began evolving from a yeast at the beginning of the most recent ice age, about 100,000 years ago. Perhaps its
In the evolution of species, 100,000 years is early yesterday. Some scientists speculate that the humid edges of great ice sheets created a local environment in which yeasts could survive, and it was there that the morel was born.
Here is the first clue morel hunters can glean from science: Morels require moist, humid growing conditions. Don't bother searching the grassy, windblown hilltops. Because morels are so relatively young, so recently evolved from yeasts, they remain much like yeasts, and are not as well adapted as most mushrooms to the interglacial period in which we live.
Yeasts found their niche in the world by keeping their life cycle simple and by growing quickly when favorable conditions appear. The more highly evolved mushrooms, on the other hand, can cope with an environment that is not always ideal.
The morel survival plan is more like a yeast: Develop and reproduce rapidly when conditions are favorable; retreat underground when conditions are too warm or too dry.
Anyone who has chased morels for many seasons knows this: Morels are here today, gone tomorrow, and to find them a hunter must reconnoiter new grounds almost daily during the prime season. Some years, when spring weather is not to their liking, morels don't appear at all in their usual haunts, or are few and far between.
Several other scientific observations offer clues about where and when morels might be found and why they sometimes can't be found.
A morel is a much larger organism than the part we find above ground. The club-shaped, fleshy structure we pick is only its fruiting body. Under the leaf litter and underground is a complex of long, thread-like cells collectively called the mycelium. In favorable conditions, this mesh-like network of mycelia spreads, often joining with the mycelia of neighboring morels until a "mother fungus" covers an extensive area. That bit of biology explains, in part, why morels often are found in colonies and why, if growing conditions remain favorable, a morel patch can persist year after year.
On the surface of the mycelium most mushrooms produce enzymes that break down large molecules of the decaying matter on which the mushroom feeds. The more primitive morel does not produce such
More highly-evolved fungi, such as the toadstool-shaped mushrooms, have caps. On the underside of the caps are row upon row of delicate gills on which spores are produced. The caps protect the delicate spores from being prematurely dislodged by rain. Morels produce their spores in pod-like sacs, called asci, which are enclosed in the tissue of the club-shaped fruiting body. The honeycombed, pitted surface of the morel provides maximum surface area on which spore-bearing asci can develop. Each morel fruiting body contains millions of asci.
Although they are microscopic, the four-to-eight morel spores in each ascus are large compared to those of other mushrooms. When the fruiting body has matured and begins to dry, the "lid" of the ascus opens and the spores spill out. If they fall on favorable soil, they give rise to a new morel mycelium, much like seeds give rise to new plants.
Because morel spores are relatively large, they are not carried on the wind as easily as those of other mushrooms, and are less likely to colonize new areas. That is the second reason morels are found in groups, often called herds by morel stalkers. Lone morels are likely to be pioneers growing from spores that were carried away from the mother fungus.
The fruiting body of the morel is first evident as a tiny knot on the threads of the mycelium. As the soil temperature rises in spring the knot enlarges rapidly, cell after cell, until a tiny club forms and pushes to the soil surface. The fleshy club, 90 percent water, is a delicate structure that can climb to sunlight only through loose, moist soil. That narrows a morel hunter's search to sandy loam soils or heavier soils with a deep humus layer. Raw clay soils are not productive hunting grounds.
Above ground the fruiting body continues to swell, if its growing site remains warm and moist. In three-to-five days it reaches full size and begins to dry. At least one mycologist has speculated that morels in warmer and drier regions on the Great Plains are developing thicker tissue on the fruiting club than those in more humid regions as a way to resist desiccation. If you measure morel hunting success by the pound, not the peck, Nebraska may be among the best of places.
Depending upon what authority you accept, there are three, four or up to 60 species of morels. One mycologist flatly states that "morel types are so variable that nomenclature is in a state of confusion." Such details are of little importance to those of us who only want to eat morels. There are, though, several readily distinguishable types.
The most common and abundant is Morchella esculenta, known by the common names yellow morel, sponge morel and butter sponge. Usually growing two-to-six inches tall, their diameter is about half their height. The pits of the pine-cone-shaped fruiting head are irregular in shape, but usually more broad and rounded than those of other morel species. The ridges and pits are usually the same yellow-brown.
The black or slender-cap morel, Morchella angusticeps, is the first to emerge in the spring. They are only two-to-four inches tall and gray to gray-tan. The ridges grow darker as the conical fruiting body matures, and the pits are usually longer than they are wide. Black morels are edible, but mycologists usually hedge, adding cautionary notes: Eating large quantities should be avoided, alcohol should not be consumed at the same time, those showing signs of decay should be discarded, and some people who eat them may experience mildly upset stomachs. If black morels carried warning labels, they would be no more ominous than those on over-the-counter cold medications.
As Morchella esculenta season ends, the thick-footed or bigfoot morel, Morchella angusticeps, begins to appear. As the common names imply, the bigfoot has a large stalk relative to the club head of the fruiting body, which is more triangular than other morels. The cap is darker in color than M. esculenta, and the pits are more shallow and elongated, some nearly three-quarters of an inch long. The bigfoot is the giant of the morel world, with some individuals growing to 12 inches tall. They grow in the same places as other morels, and, while not as attractive as M. esculenta, they are choice eating.
A fourth type, Morchella deliciosa, the white or white-ridged morel, is as delicious as its Latin name suggests. Seldom more than two inches tall, it is the last to appear in spring. The ridges on the cap are characteristically white and do not darken with age. The dark brown pits are long and narrow. It prefers grassy areas on woodland edges, particularly along small creeks.
The wooded bluffs and floodplains of the Missouri River and the lower reaches of the Platte, Elkhorn, Niobrara, Blue, Loup and Republican rivers are the state's prime habitat, but morels are found throughout Nebraska in varied habitats. Morel habitat is scarce in western Nebraska because of its lower humidity, less-extensive woodlands and a greater exposure to desiccating winds. But where habitat exists, morels find it.
Most woodlands in Nebraska are associated with streams, but wooded draws, ravines and woodlots away from flowing water can be good morel grounds and often are overlooked by hunters. Occasionally morels are found in coniferous woodlands, but show a marked preference for deciduous woodlands. The growing requirements of morels are the same everywhere: decaying vegetation, loose soils and relatively high humidity.
Folklore and science both stumble when predicting exactly where morels will be found. Some methodical hunters note where they found morels in the past, identify the soil type from a soil survey map and search other sites with similar soils. The shortcoming of that method is that alluvial soils of the Platte Valley, for example, are more-or-less the same from Plattsmouth upstream to North Platte, and morels are less associated with particular soil types than with what is on the surface of the soil. Morels prosper on many soils if there is a rich layer of decaying humus.
Morel hunters who track logging crews are on to a more reliable way of predicting where morels might pop up in profusion. Two or three years after a woodland has been cut, rotting stumps and trimmings grow luxuriant blooms of morels, if all other growing conditions are met. Fallen trees create prime morel habitat by providing a decaying wood medium to feed morels, and the open canopy allows sunlight to enter and warm the soil. Some morel hunters have reaped a harvest spring after spring for a decade or more near the same deadfall.
The die-off of American elms along Nebraska streams during the 1960s was a bonanza for morel hunters, and led to the oft-quoted advice to look for morels near dead elms. Morels, though, are not fussy about what variety of rotting tree they feed on, and had there been a die-off of boxelders, ashs or cottonwoods, those species no doubt would have been enshrined in morel-hunting mythology. Burned woodlands produce fantastic crops of morels for a year or two.
A reliable way to narrow the search for morels is to note the conspicuous plants where morels grow, then search other areas that have those plants. Along the Missouri River, Jack-in-the-pulpits, May-apples, phlox and ferns often colonize sites with the same combination of soil, slope, moisture and sunlight preferred by morels. Elsewhere in the state, morel companion plants are less showy, more difficult to identify and require a bit more botany, first to identify the plant and then to note its stage of growth.
Ultimately, experience makes a successful morel hunter. After finding morels for enough years, veteran stalkers sense where to look, in the same way an experienced upland game hunter develops a feel for where a rooster pheasant or covey of quail would likely be. Some veterans claim they can identify morel grounds by the sweet scent of decaying vegetation.
Timing is critical, and there are many homespun formulas for picking the right time. After several successful seasons morel hunters should be able to narrow the prime period in the area they hunt. The rub, though, is that morels do not emerge at the same time every spring. Timing varies with the advance of spring weather, soil temperature and moisture. Plants follow the same pattern, so one of the most reliable indicators of when to search for morels is to note when more easily observed plants emerge, when buds are opening or when they flower.
On the average, morel hunters in southeastern Nebraska should start checking the woods in mid-April, especially if the weather has been warm. In central Nebraska, the first two weeks of May is usually morel time. In north-central Nebraska and the Pine Ridge the morel season often extends into June. So, the old advice about watching for blooming lilacs or redbuds is far more reliable than calendar dates. Swallows may return to Capistrano, and the buzzards to Hinkley, Ohio, on about the same dates every year, but morels will have nothing to do with arbitrary measures of time.
Fortunately, not all the morels in an area emerge at the same time. Morels usually appear during a two-or-three- week period, or longer if conditions are especially favorable. Ordinarily, an individual morel emerges, grows and dries within four-to-six days.
Because the growth of the fruiting body is largely determined by soil temperature, south-facing slopes and open areas in woodlands where sunlight penetrates produce the earliest morels. They appear later on shaded, north-facing slopes. Warm days after a rain shower, especially if the spring has been dry, will often start morels popping.
Finding morels is the hard part; harvesting them is like a walk through a candy store. Meticulous hunters use a knife to cut the stalk above ground level, rather than plucking them out of the ground, to eliminate soil that eventually finds its way into the pits of other morels in the bag.
Morels should not be kept in plastic bags because high humidity will speed deterioration. Baskets are a nice aesthetic touch, but plan on picking up spilled morels regularly as you make your way through brushy undergrowth. A cotton bag, such as a reusable grocery bag, is practical. A mesh bag is even better, allowing air to circulate, dirt and bugs to fall off and, some believe, giving the morels a last chance to spread spores.
Morel season is also tick season. Because some ticks carry Lyme disease, it is wise to take precautions to avoid them. Wear light-colored clothing to make spotting ticks easier. Tuck pants legs into boots or bind them at the bottom, and spray tick repellent on clothing. Change and launder clothes when you arrive home, and check yourself for ticks.
If someone catches you emerging from the woods laden with morels tell them the place is lousy with ticks.
Morels should be processed as soon as possible to prevent loss of moisture and flavor. Morels should be checked for insects or slugs that have bored into the stalks or heads. Slice large morels in half lengthwise; small ones can be left whole. Briefly plunge them into cold water to dislodge soil and insects, but don't soak them, because the flesh quickly becomes mushy and loses its meaty texture. Morels gathered on sandy soils may require gentle spraying to remove grit from the pits. Pat dry, and they are ready for cooking or processing for later use.
While it is hard to match the flavor of mushrooms cooked the same day they were gathered, there are times when the woodland gods smile on a morel hunter, and he or she comes home with more than can be eaten in one sitting. Every morel hunter has an opinion about the best way to preserve morels, but most favor canning, or sautéing in butter and freezing. Others freeze them uncooked or dry them.
Stored properly, dried morels will keep almost indefinitely. Unless the morels are especially dirty, do not wash them before drying. Slice each one in half. If the humidity is low, air dry them by stringing them on a stout line with a large needle, then hang them. Another technique is to spread them on screens to dry.
A screened porch is perfect for air drying mushrooms. If you dry morels outside, cover them with cheesecloth to keep insects away. Whether strung or spread, the morels should not touch, and there must be ample air circulation around them. Depending on the size of the morels, the humidity, temperature and wind, drying can take from several days to two weeks. If they cannot be dried in two weeks, an alternative drying method should be used. When completely dry they will be brittle.
Small batches can be dried in the oven. Place them on shallow pans, cookie sheets or racks. Set
Dried morels can be stored in large jars with loose lids. Some people add bay leaves or black pepper to discourage homesteading insects. Check the morels occasionally for mold. For aesthetic reasons, some cooks use only whole caps, but don't waste the stalks or broken caps. Pulverize them in a food processor to make "mushroom dust," which can be used to flavor recipes.
Dried morels must be reconstituted for use. Soaking in warm water (some cooks prefer warm milk) for 15 to 30 minutes will bring them back to life. Occasionally swish them around so that all absorb liquid. Wash the reconstituted morels in a colander under running cold water. Pat them dry and they are ready for any recipe.
Cleaned and sliced morels also can be frozen. The simplest way is to place them in plastic freezer bags or containers of water, but much of their delicate flavor will be lost. The preferred method is to cut them into small pieces and blanch them or sauté them in butter and freeze. If you sauté them, freeze the butter and juices along with the mushrooms. Adding frozen morels to a dish while it cooks rather than thawing them first preserves their texture.
Canning is the best technique to lock in the morels' delicate flavor and distinctive texture. Clean and cut them into small pieces, then cook three minutes in boiling water to which 1 teaspoon of vinegar has been added per quart of water. Pack hot in clean, hot jars. Add 1 teaspoon salt per quart. Cover with the water in which they were boiled. Seal and pressure cook for the time and pressure recommended, usually about 10 pounds of pressure for 30 minutes.
Preserved morels can be used in any recipe calling for mushrooms, including scrambled eggs, soup, meatloaf, gravy and sauces, or they can be sautéed with a thick New York strip steak. Every bite will bring back memories of days in the woods, and evoke the promise of the next morel season.