The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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April 13, 2014

Morel mushrooms are a W.Va. delicacy, but be careful

False morels are poisonous, and even the good ones can make you sick if you overeat

BECKLEY — The morel mushroom is one of West Virginia’s best-known delicacies that grows wild in the woods statewide. Mushroom hunting is a wonderful way to get exercise and be in the outdoors at the same time. There is no expense involved, and a bag is all that is needed.

It is recommended that you use a bag such as an onion sack so that the spores can disperse as you walk along. Although most of the spores should be dispersed by the time you pick them, why not put them in a sack so that any leftover spores can make it to the ground also. The way I look at it, is that it couldn’t hurt. I put them in a Wal-Mart bag, like most other people do, until I learned a little more about them.

The morel mushroom part is actually the reproductive part of the fungi. Morels are sac fungi. The mushrooms contain millions of spores and their function is to release these spores to land, and hopefully germinate, to form a new mycelium.  

The main part of the fungi lies underneath the ground in a network of strands called mycelium. Fungi can be some of the largest living organisms because of their ability to form large networks of underground mycelium. So picking mushrooms doesn’t harm them. Humans would have to disturb the ground and damage the mycelium to cause harm to the morel population.  

It takes roughly five years for a spore to become a mushroom. If the spore is released now, who knows if the land will be undisturbed five years from now for it to be picked again?  Morels are common in many parts of North America including out west. These mushrooms grow in sand soil type or similar soil conditions. They require old-growth vegetation, and looking around dead trees on the ground decaying is a good place to find these rascals.

In West Virginia I tend to find them in poplar stands in the forest. Other preferred tree types are white ash, elm, and apple. Old overgrown apple orchards can be an excellent place to pick these tasty treats. Tall grass can make them hard to spot and a stick can be used to part the grass back in order to see the morels. In apple orchards a good indicator to know when to start looking for these delicacies is when the trees start to bloom. Usually they can be found until the apple trees drop their petals.

Other indicators that some of you have probably already heard of are: when the forsythia is in full bloom, when the leaves on an oak tree are as big as a squirrel’s ear, and when the mayapple are around six inches in height. Although things seem to be a little late blooming this year, the morels should be up and become more plentiful in the next couple of weeks.

Another place to look for morels is in creek bottoms. My wife Tara and I stumbled across several morels a couple of years ago while trout fishing. We were just walking along the creek going to the next hole and looked down and low and behold we found a new place to hunt for morels. Keep your eyes open for them this time of year because sometimes you can find them in some odd places.

I should make you aware that there is a false morel that is poisonous if consumed. False morels look somewhat similar to true morels, but there is a difference in the two types. True morels have a honeycomb like cap and can be black, yellow, and tan in color. Some true morels can also have a blue and gray color to them. False morels don’t have as distinct honeycomb pattern as do the true morels. When a false morel is cut in half it will have a milky white substance inside and should not be eaten. If you are unsure, you should look in a book or check the internet before eating it.  

I have gotten sick before by eating too many morels. A buddy and I, while in college, were turkey hunting a few years ago in Gilmer County and got in a large patch of them and picked several. Come to find out after talking with James Meads, a retired Glenville State College biology professor who I owe a lot of my biology knowledge to and respect greatly, some morels have more toxins than others and if you eat a lot, the toxins will make you sick. I know from experience, and all I can say is don’t eat too many.

From some research it seems that the later in the year and the longer the morel has been up, the more toxic they become. We picked the ones that made me sick in mid May. However, my buddy didn’t get sick. He ate as many as I did and I guess some people react to the toxins different than others.

Most people have their secret spots and keep their lips sealed when it comes to hunting morels. Some places will produce year after year, and others won’t. The above tips should give you a good place to start looking as now is the time to get out and scan the forest floor for these edible mushrooms. Just don’t eat too many at one time and be aware that turkey season opens on Monday, April 28, and hunters will be in the woods until noon. Get out and look for these tasty treats, as they won’t be up for very long.

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