Forager’s delights

Spring 2018 morel haul

Marty Lee has been morel mushroom hunting since he was a child.

"As soon as I could walk my dad had me out in the woods," he said. "I grew up in a great habitat in Northeast Oklahoma. [Morels] were everywhere."

Lee is the owner and admin of the Facebook group Oklahoma Morel Report, and he recently lent his advice to Outdoor Oklahoma magazine for a morel hunting how-to video.

"It’s something typically passed down in families. The great hunting spots are also passed down, particularly if they’re on private property. In Oklahoma, about 95 percent of the land is private, and if you don’t have your own land with morels, it can be challenging to go out and find them."

Morels thrive in the spring and are hunted in the Midwest between late March and early May. Hunters love these edible fungi for their flavor and fleeting nature—and they savor the foraging process (morels aren’t farmed like other edible mushrooms). Morel size, shape, and color vary tremendously, but the mushroom’s exterior always looks like an alien honeycomb, and the bottom of the cap connects to a white or off-white stem.

It’s technically illegal to remove mushrooms from places like state parks and wildlife management areas. "With a lot of areas we consider public … the rule enforcers like to place mushrooms under the same type of regulations [that deal with] the molesting of plants, cutting of firewood, removing of archaeological artifacts," Lee said.

If you’re an experienced morel hunter, you might have had success, say, in the creek behind your neighborhood. This land most likely belongs to the city, though it’s probably not carefully monitored.

"Even if it’s not technically legal, a lot of people use those areas to hunt," Lee said. "The cops probably aren’t going to be watching you hunt at the creek."

Lee said the areas around lakes are also popular hunting spots—but while these floodplains and the spaces along many hiking trails might not be designated state park territory, there’s a good chance they’re private property.

Still, the land in our state abounds with these treats this time of year. (Just don’t get caught if you’re snipping fungi on land that’s not yours—and get permission when you can.) Morels can appear in or near almost any woodland in Oklahoma. Local mushroom hunter/banjo player Cody Brewer said he typically finds three to four morels when he forages, but this year he managed to haul home somewhere between 30 and 40.

"It’s a blast just wandering the woods, searching for this mysterious creature," said Brewer.

Most morel hunters find success by identifying specific trees in the forest. The mushrooms prefer dead and dying trees—once a tree begins decomposing, the roots decay underground, inviting morels to emerge under what once was the canopy of the tree. The mycelium feed on the dying roots, then fruit to produce the mushroom, "just like the vegetables in your garden," Lee said.

In the central part of the state, the majority of morels are found around elm or cottonwood trees. Here in Eastern Oklahoma, the fungi tend to grow near sycamore trees, which can be found all over—especially near drainages, river bottoms, and creeks—and often have an identifiable white bark.

"When the leaves are off," Lee said, "you can scan the woods and see that white trunk sticking up like a flag. Typically when you see one you’ll see more in the periphery."

If morel foraging strikes your fancy, don’t hunt unprepared—those without some tolerance for the outdoors need not apply.

"You’re going to have to be willing to get dirty, scratched up. No short pants. You have to crawl in the big briars," Lee said.

And beware of false morels. Gyromitra caroliniana—also known as "big red" or the Carolina false morel—is the most common imposter here. Though some folks eat them, Lee avoids them in fear of harsh—though slow—effects on the body.

"I was fed them as a kid, but I will not feed them to my kids. They contain a substance very similar to rocket fuel that is potentially carcinogenic and can cause organ failure—these things can accumulate in body over time, though they won’t kill you when you eat them."

Verpas (Verpa conica and Verpa bohemica) also look very similar to morels, but they’re not often found here.

A sure way to tell a false morel is to cut it in half. Morels are hollow inside, while lookalikes are filled with cottony fibers. Morels’ caps connect directly to the stems—in some of the fakes the corrugated veil comes down but does not meet the stalk.

Lee likes his morels cooked "the traditional hillbilly way"—wash them (to remove small insects), cut them in half or thirds, dunk them in egg and milk wash, roll them in crushed saltine cracker crumbs, and fry them like you would a chicken fried steak. (Flour in place of crackers works well, too.) Many foragers simply sauté them in butter. They’re delectable either way—rich and meaty, a little nutty, perfect with some salt, and not too chewy. If you’re unsure about how to cook morels, remember they are "just mushrooms," Lee said. "Use them like any mushroom."

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