PULLMAN, WASH. – Morels, wild mushrooms prized for their depth of flavor, are enjoying a banner year in much of the Pacific Northwest. Not only did they appear early, but there are lots of them and they are good quality, according to a mushroom expert at Washington State University.
“I’d say it has been a first-rate morel season,” said plant pathologist Lori Carris, a fungus researcher who is well into her 25th spring of roaming forest floors for morels. “They emerged two to three weeks earlier than any time I can remember. And for the most part, they are looking good, very good.”
In addition to woodlands and burn areas from last year’s forest fires, morels have been spotted protruding from dead leaves and woodchip mulch in urban areas. Cemeteries, back yards, flower beds – “we’ve even discovered them here on campus,” said Carris, adding that her interest is as much gastronomic as scientific.
Morels, with their wrinkly pinecone shape atop a stem, are a highly sought mushroom that fetches $30-$40 pound at food stores and farm stands. And though the Northwest’s conifer forests and seasonal rains typically provide fertile habitat for them to grow, this year’s crop is “exceptional,” said Carris.
“I agree,” said Tim Gerlitz, president of the North Idaho Mycological Association. “In fact, I was notified this morning that one amateur mycologist here in northern Idaho had picked several hundred pounds over the weekend.”
Raving messages posted on mushroom blogs and websites echo the same thing: There’s a bumper crop of morels this year.
First, we had a mild winter followed by early-season sunshine. That combined with moderate spring temperatures and just the right amount of rain percolating through the soil likely played a big role, said Carris.
In Washington, February and March were among the warmest on record but still had normal rainfall, said meteorologist Nic Loyd of WSU’s AgWeatherNet. According to farmers, major crops such as apples and cherries bloomed early as well, he said.
Web-based, publicly available AgWeatherNet (http://weather.wsu.edu/awn.php) provides near real-time weather data statewide, along with decision aids for agricultural producers and other users.
As for the morels, they’ll probably last another one to two weeks, said Carris. Her concern that their early emergence would mean an early-ending season did not pan out: “They’re still going strong.”
But novices take note. For each safe, edible mushroom that sprouts from the ground, there can be look-alikes that are poisonous, she cautioned. Last week, three family members near Bend, Ore., required emergency treatment after ingesting poisonous mushrooms that they misidentified by using a picture displayed on a phone app.
False morels, which superficially resemble the coveted true morel to the untrained eye, can cause nausea, vomiting, stomach pain and may be carcinogenic with repeated exposure, said Carris.
“The best way to learn which mushrooms to eat is to take a mushroom identification class or go foraging with an expert,” she said. When it comes to making an ID, “when it doubt, throw it out.”