“Why didn’t you come get me?” my wife Nancy asked, when she spotted me on my hands and knees by a campsite near the Umatilla River. “I’ve been walking around with an empty bag for the last half hour.”
“I would have yelled but I didn’t want anyone to know we were here,” I replied. It’s amazing. There are morels everywhere. Even under the old picnic table.”
That was the year we hit the bonanza, bagging over 200 morels in three visits to a patch of ground no more than 30 yards in diameter. Our good luck lasted two more springs before the “magic patch” vanished. Which only goes to show that finding the elusive morel is often best explained as serendipity.
I didn’t completely blunder upon the magic patch. Half a dozen morels emerged from forest duff in our cabin’s driveway in early May. Soon afterwards, a neighbor reported, “The Indian is picking the further down the road.”
These observations set off a bad case of mushroom fever, eventually leading to the abandoned campsite.
Mushroom hunting is not a recent sport. Native American tribes foraged mushrooms from the Blue Mountains for food and medicine. The Sahaptin-speaking peoples had general terms for both edible and poisonous species. One preferred species, the oyster mushroom, was harvested in the fall after first rains. Interestingly, journal passages from several notable early 19th century explorers, including Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, David Thompson, David Douglas, John Fremont, and Charles Wilkes, make no mention of mushrooms from the region. Evidently, they had access to plenty of roots, game, and fish when they roamed the Blue Mountains in late spring.
While mushroom hunting might be considered a solitary sport, don’t expect to be alone in the woods. Pickers reportedly harvested one million pounds of mushrooms from the Blue Mountains of Oregon in 1993. The majority of today’s commercial harvest is morels, and to a lesser extent, the boletes.
The focus of this article is on the three mushroom species I know best. My goal is to introduce you to a springtime sport that provides me with as much pleasure as fishing for trout and salmon, when a good day is enjoying nature and a great day is bringing home something for dinner.
The Elusive Morel
On certain years, when soil moisture and temperature coincide in ways I may never understand, morels (Morchella spp.) burst upon the forest floor. Some mycologists say that morels begin to show when soil temperature exceeds 50 F. Others tell you to wait for an extended period of warm weather following springtime rain. For me, it’s when lupine and balsamroot bloom. The peak season is generally early May to mid-June with higher elevation mushrooms showing up later.
Searching for morels is much like fishing for steelhead, picking huckleberries, or hunting for agates. It’s a much easier task when someone shows you where to go and how to do it. And, similar to most hunter-gathering activities, you don’t have a clue until you experience a find. Indeed, repeated success in the field is required before predictable associations between the occurrence of mushrooms and their environmental setting or habitat can be made.
The morels near our family cabin occur at the 2000-foot elevation mark and are considered to be “white” or “blonde” morels. My low-elevation searches focus on black-soil bottom areas near streamside communities of cottonwood, buckbrush and snowberry. Despite spending hours and hours of searching stream banks and forested slopes, Although I’ve yet to find more than two dozen morels each year since our magic patch disappeared, I keep looking.
It wasn’t until another cabin neighbor reported finding mushrooms, “Two miles from the top of the ridge and off to the right,” that I expanded my search zone to more lucrative high elevation forests. Ridge-top morels have a dark brown cap and are often referred to as “black” morels. Stands of old-growth fir having huckleberry, native orchids, and wild strawberry undergrowth are helpful clues, as are downed trees and rotten logs. Slope and aspect appear variable. I’ve found morels on steep west facing as well as low-gradient east facing slopes.
The important thing is to widen your search area in the immediate vicinity after you find one. Don’t be afraid to get down on your hands and knees and peer under bushes and forest debris. Move slowly, look around, and search for something different than a random pinecone on the forest floor mosaic. Many mushrooms form a symbiotic relationship with host trees. Being able to identify tree species and surrounding vegetation will increase your odds of having a successful hunt.
The relationship between fire and subsequent abundant fruiting of morels has been widely documented. In some cases, production may last for as much as 2 to 3 years following the burn. According to C.G. Parks and C.L. Schmitt, authors of “Wild Edible Mushrooms of the Blue Mountains,” fruiting of saphrophytic species are triggered by the flush of carbohydrates made available when trees die. Another reason for hunting fire-scarred ridges is morels are more visible when low-lying vegetation has been removed against a backdrop of blackened soil.
No different than any hunting or fishing expedition, careful homework will increase your odds of a successful trip. One source for recent burn areas, the “Burn Morel” website, sells e-books with maps indicating burn perimeters, elevation, and satellite view for several western states (see modern-forager.com). The Oregon Department of Forestry also provides information on wildfire activity in northeast Oregon and southeast Washington. Several large fires occurred in the Umatilla National Forest in 2018. Avid mushroom hunters are likely to descend upon these areas this spring.
The Rewarding Coral
Coral mushrooms (Ramaria spp.) are often confused with cauliflower mushrooms (Sparassus radicata) because they appear similar at first glance. Corals have been described as looking like “a pile of noodles.” They are difficult to identify to species because they exhibit a wide range of colors. Some species are considered mildly poisonous.
In the Blues, corals are often found in similar habitat and at the same time of year as morels. Their large size and cream-colored branches make them easy to spot. I find corals along ridge tops in thick forest duff, typically near rotten logs beneath an over-story of old growth fir. Individual fruiting bodie approach the size of a head of cabbage and often occur in groups of two or more. One coral may be good for several meals.
Nancy found her first coral at the base of a large standing dead fir tree. “Something called to me, so I went over there,” she said.
Whether a forest spirit or the fact latent habitat association skills pointed the way – who cares? Unfortunately, Nancy later tripped on a branch and sent her entire harvest flying across the forest floor. I mention this only to reinforce the importance of wearing adequate footwear, paying attention to where you walk, and carrying a strong bag to keep your mushrooms secure and dry.
The Highly-Regarded Bolete
King boletes, Boletus edulis, are favored by avid “shroomers” because of their firm flesh and nutty taste. Known as “porcinis” by Italians, boletes exhibit a bald cap with a netlike design known as reticulation below the cap. It’s nigh near impossible to ignore their robust parasol shape when you have trekked the woods for hours and your canvas bag is empty. The “Spring King” from the Blues has a massive stem and a distinctive reddish brown cap that spreads up to a foot wide. Another key feature is the underside to their cap consists of sponge-like pores (not gills). I don’t search for boletes as much as they find me.
Other Forest Fungi You May Find
According to the U.S. Forest Service, at least 23 mushroom species in the Blues have commercial value. The bad news for Westside inhabitants of Oregon and Washington is you will not find chanterelles in the Blues. One source of confusion relates to presence of the false morel. Common names include calf’s brains, elephant ears, and “snowbank brains” (so-called because they appear in forested areas where the snow has recently melted). The stem of true morels is completely fused with the cap and hollow, while false morels have a wavy cap that hangs off the stem. Although false morels are considered edible if properly prepared, the genus Gyromitra has toxic properties and should be avoided.
If hunting western mushrooms has your interest, I highly recommend, “All That Rain Promises and More” by David Arora. This entertaining field guide has color pictures and a handy identification key that can be carried into the field. Serious mushroom hunters will also be interested in his more complete volume, “Mushrooms Demystified.” Several informative websites showcase edible Pacific Northwest mushrooms, including northernbushcraft.com, alpental.com, and mushroaming.com. The latter website offers field guides, tours, and details on public presentations.
Preparation and Storage
Mushrooms gathered from the wild don’t look anything like those you find in the deli section at Safeway. Bits of dirt, bugs, and debris should be carefully removed before eating. Older mushrooms are likely to have worms. How much to trim versus how much to save often comes into play.
Nancy gets stuck cleaning our mushroom harvest. Blame it on her inner attention to detail. My job is to listen to her complaints and prepare them for storage. The first step involves trimming old and insect-damaged tissue. Morels are split in half longitudinally with a sharp knife and lightly brushed clean. Harvest not eaten fresh is sealed in zip-lock bags or vacuum-packed and frozen for later use. If I am lucky enough to come home with a bagful, I’ll string them on sewing thread like a Christmas tree garland to dry before vacuum packing. Dried morels can be stored for several years.
Processing corals is more complicated because of the amount of forest debris that typically comes along with their capture. We float corals in a basin of cold water to remove surface dirt and fir needles. Individual strands or “branches” are then pulled apart, further cleaned to Nancy’s satisfaction, and placed on a cloth towel to air dry. Wormy tissue should be trimmed from the base unless extra protein is your goal. Take careful note of older corals (i.e., those with sprawling branches, dried, and/or discolored) and promise yourself not to harvest them next time around. Senescent fruiting bodies of mushrooms should be left in the forest as an investment in the future. Corals can be packed in Ziplock bags and kept in the freezer for up to 6 months with little loss of flavor. Vacuum-packing them is challenging because of their moisture content.
Boletes are cleaned and prepared fresh as accompaniment to a meal, but also eaten in soups, pasta, or risotto after being dried and reconstituted. It’s best to slice and dry larger ones because the flesh tends not to be firm. King boletes are one of a few wild mushrooms that are sold pickled.
What About Poisonous and Hallucinogenic Mushrooms?
There’s a Croatian proverb that goes something like, “All mushrooms are edible, but some only once.” One concern for novice pickers is poisonous look-alikes. For example, many of the deadly Aminita species look similar to the common Agaricus found in grocery stores. Some edible mushrooms produce irritable bowel or laxative effects, especially if eaten uncooked or in excess. Other species are toxic when taken in combination with alcohol. For these reasons, do not eat any mushroom that you are not absolutely certain of. As an aside, the milk thistle herb, widely used in Europe for treatment of mushroom poisoning, is approved only for conditional use in the U.S.
Conventional wisdom cautions to consume small amounts (e.g., a tablespoon) of any mushroom that is new to you and that you wait 24 hours when testing your resistance. Some people have allergic reactions even to edible species. It’s also true that everyone’s taste buds are different. For example, my friend Ted loves shaggy manes that he gathers each fall from the edge of a local golf course. I tried them once, suffered mild abdominal discomfort, and crossed them off my list (along with Spring Kings and a few others that produced a similar reaction). As for friends who are squeamish about eating Paleolithic cuisine gathered from contemporary forests, let them opt out. Their hesitation leaves more mushrooms for you!
Unfortunately for all you Jimi Hendrix fans, those so-called “magic” mushrooms – the ones that contain the psychoactive ingredient psilocybin – are not common to the Blue Mountains of eastern Oregon and Washington. If getting high on wild fungi is your goal, you’ll have better luck foraging in cow pastures west of the Cascade Mountains.
More Shroom Advice
Mushroom hunters can forage for free on U.S. Forest Service land for personal use. Permits must be purchased if you plan to harvest, possess, or transport more than five gallons of any kind of mushroom in Oregon. Harvesting mushrooms on private land without permission is considered poaching.
A good way to get started is via a local mycology or mushroom club. Tromp the woods with a guided group until you know what you are doing, then find a trusted friend with a sense of adventure and an eye for detail. Much like any hunter-gatherer activity, pattern recognition, habitat association, persistence, and luck all come into play.
I admit to not being a big fan of mushroom soup. However, there is no finer accompaniment to a T-bone steak grilled medium rare than wild morels or corals fried in butter. Spend a day or two roaming the woods this spring and you might have some of the same. Worst case is you’ll learn something about forest fungi.