- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 28, 2003

This is not the kind of morning anyone would pick to traipse through the forest. It is nose-dripping cold, drizzly and dark.

But at the appointed hour they arrive, the hunters. They seem like a ragtag army — wizened older men, young couples, old couples, children and their mothers — armed with optimistically large hand baskets, manuals and an unquenchable thirst for something called a black morel.

Ahh… a morel?

Yes. What these eager hunters seek is an elusive forest-dweller that is neither plant nor animal. Morels are mushrooms, wild mushrooms, the undisputed leaders of the third biological kingdom, which houses all kinds of unpleasant organisms like mold, bacteria, yeast and fungi.

And the black morel is a delicate, hard-to-find bit of forest candy, the first morel to appear in the spring.

No wonder this group, members of the Mycological Association of Washington, D.C., — from “myc” or “myco,” the Greek root for “fungus” — seems psyched. This mid-April foray into the woods at Great Falls, one of the year’s first, has brought out 30 of the group’s 100-some members, along with guests. Their expertise ranges from that of foray leader Jon Ellifritz of Hyattsville, who can identify every leaf, stick, fungus, insect, bird call and trailhead in the woods, to the ignorance of the total blanks who don’t know morels from shiitake.

It seems to be the black morel that lures them. Indeed, the thought of a black morel in their garlic sauce tonight has pulled these people from their beds on a raw Saturday morning that seems better suited for sleeping under down comforters.

• • •

Someone long ago determined that certain kinds of fungi could be actually quite tasty when sauteed in a little garlic and butter. It is unknown who determined that some fungi could also be quite deadly. There are old wild mushroom hunters and bold mushroom eaters, the saying goes, but no old, bold wild mushroom hunters. Mushroom hunters indeed bring new meaning to the phrase, “pick your poison.”

Sure, you can find many different varieties of mushroom in the gourmet section of Dean and DeLuca (some going for up to $30 a pound), but to fully appreciate the gamut run by these curious organisms, a little study is in order.

It seems, first, that the fanned, crumbly caps of mushrooms — the part people like to eat — are the sex organs of the fungus. If that negatively affects your appetite, this won’t help: Of the 1.5 million bits of fungi that grow in North America, about half will kill you or at least make you very sorry you didn’t cross-check your specimen in a mushroom hunter’s manual. Every mushroom hunter, even the pros, brings along a manual.

And in the case of the morel (genus Morchella), it’s good to have a reference handy since there are three types (the common, the half-free and the black), and though all three are edible, they can be confused with something called the false morel (genus Gyromitra) that can cause serious illness and death.

That’s why, as the group prepares to enter the woods of Great Falls and claim the fungi held within for bragging rights and ultimately dinner, Mr. Ellifritz gathers them around and shows them a picture of their prey, the black morel, to make sure they don’t harvest trouble.

“Gyromitra,” Mr. Ellifritz cautions about the false morel, “contain a chemical — monomethylhydrazine — that when metabolized by the body is almost the same as solid rocket fuel. People have gotten sick from breathing its fumes when it’s being cooked.”

He tells them, too, that this past winter, harder and colder than those of recent years, could make for a disappointing harvest of mushrooms this early in the season.

“This year was more like a normal winter in terms of weather,” he says, “and whereas this might have been the peak of the season in years past, this year it’s early — so we might not find so much as we would have found in recent years.”

A few in the group murmur their agreement. A disappointing black morel foray just the previous weekend yielded only a few sad specimens.

It just might be too early, but at least a few of this group believe the snow and cold could make this the best morel season in years. Savita Seth, a Potomac native out for her fifth foray, says she expects black morel season to go longer this year, into summer.

“Usually you can only find these in the spring, but there was so much moisture and snow this winter, I think there will be a bumper crop,” she says.

Ms. Seth is a vegetarian and hunts the morel because it tastes somehow like meat. This is the first thing everyone says about their elusive quarry. A fungus in the woods carrying the flavor of a carefully cooked, tender steak? It sounds a little kooky, but after one and then more glowing testimonials, the black morel fanaticism can take hold. Mushroom hunters show signs of wanting to track down one of these tree stump dwellers and take it home to the frying pan — or at least to jot down a few recipes for cooking all those black morels that await. In truth, it would not be that easy — but that’s for later.

• • •

Armed now with at least a vague idea of what they’re looking for — a narrow, elongated stem about two inches long with an odd looking cap that looks like wrinkled and ashy (not black) paper — the group sets off. Newbies carry paper bags; the more experienced tote personalized hand baskets. One of the group wonders aloud if the traditional Easter egg hunt started with a mushroom gatherer.

Surprisingly, the old-timers — the foray experts — mix easily with the mushroom newbies. In fact, the ones who follow the mushroom harvest across the country — yes, there is a lot of travel around the country in search of tasty fungus — enjoy sharing what they know.

That’s good, because some of these foragers will stop to eat slimy fungi they find on logs or under rotting tree carcasses. If the wise “shroomers” allow it, it must be fine, and this foray will end up without casualties.

Mr. Ellifritz and Mycological Association President Buddy Kilpatrick, of Arlington, lead the group from parking lot to hunting fields. As he walks, Mr. Kilpatrick, a group member for 15 years, discourses on the “real fruity smell” of his favorite mushroom, the chanterelle, and recalls fond remembrances of mushrooms past.

A foray in Telluride, Colo., two years ago for a national mycological group was Mr. Kilpatrick’s mushroom nirvana. He remembers sheer numbers of chanterelles and cepes (also known as porcini mushrooms) and inexhaustible supplies.

“I could have picked mushrooms for days and days,” he sighs with the memory.

The West has quantities, but the East has variety. As many as 1,500 different mushrooms grow in the forests and fields of Virginia. Some of them, like the morel, are delicious. Some, like the witch’s butter, are just OK. But some, like the amanita, will kill you.

• • •

A competitive and hungry mushroom hunter can travel with the pack on this search or make his or her own way — but those who go off on their own ought to know what they’re doing. Novices have been known to trample perfectly good puffballs, mushrooms that look exactly like their names.

Hunters will tell you that if puffballs (Lycoperdon and Calvatia) are firm and white all the way through, they’re edible and good, especially fried with butter and salt. But stepping on this prize is literally a faux pas.

We are in the forest, of course, because dark, dank places are the perfect breeding ground for mushrooms. Sun, it seems, has nothing to do with a mushroom’s six-week growth cycle.

Mr. Ellifritz, leading a large group through the woods, is dispensing all manner of mushroom lore: which dead trees make the best hosts for which kind of fungus, which tree spores are edible, how the vegetation growing in the woods can lead you to fungi. Some fungi, such as shiitake, can grow only in association with plants, he says. Likewise, tulip poplars are a likely sign that morels are nearby.

Morels have a specific growth pattern, Mr. Ellifritz says. “If you find one black morel, you’ll find others. they grow separately, not in clumps.”

Any number of signs can lead the aware hunter to the prize. Mr. Ellifritz, who knows the scientific name for every plant the group comes across, uses flowers, rocks, the condition of blossoms and the pattern of plant growth as guides. Mushroom hunters orient themselves to the seasons (and thus to the appearance of various types of mushrooms) not so much by watching the calendar as by staying alert to these natural indicators.

It makes one aware of just how many secrets a forest holds, and this reawakening to nature is why many on this foray have come along. Some very “organic” people are among the group; they love the idea of living off the land, to the point of eating leaves as food.

Matt Cohen, a late twenty-something from the District, is here with his two sisters, Cindy (also from the District) and Elisa (from Silver Spring). They are finding all sorts of edible jelly fungi on trees: “tree ears” (genus Auricularia, an Asian mushroom that is also known as “cloud ear” and that looks like Gummy Bears) and “witch’s butter” (genus Tremella, which resemble day-old scrambled eggs).

Mr. Cohen says he wouldn’t dare eat the things he doesn’t recognize, but that was why he is on the foray, to learn the deadly ones.

“I love hiking and learning about wild plants. My family went out and picked wild plants, picked wild mushrooms, and had ourselves a wild dinner,” he says. “We are trying to eat healthy.”

But eaters must be cautious. Mr. Ellifritz repeats the refrain: “Almost all wild mushrooms should be cooked before eating. Never eat mushrooms if you don’t know for sure what they are.”

Mr. Ellifritz says there are no general rules for distinguishing edible from poisonous mushrooms — “despite any old wives’ tales you may have heard — such as that cooking them with a silver spoon will indicate whether they’re poisonous or not.”

Even he doesn’t always know if something is dangerous, he says, since mushrooms can look deformed and unlike the glossy photographs in the mushroom manuals.

• • •

Just then, when it appears the foray will yield only the strange, small jelly fungi, from the distance comes a jubilant shout: We have morel!

Mushroom hunters pour out of the hidden places of the forest to size up this fungal treasure. Mr. Ellifritz is summoned to confirm the discovery.

Yes, it is a morel — but a mighty unimpressive one, a morel such as one might easily step on or mow over with disdain. Not until several minutes later does another gleeful shout ring out in the quiet woods: Morel!

Mr. Ellifritz is brought in to declare authenticity. It is good, he says. And this time the morel looks more like the photos in picture books.

At this point the hunt begins to yield a morel bonanza. A group of six finds a small one they will have to split into six almost-not-worth-it morsels. And then there is Mr. Cohen, sitting in front of the largest morel find, reading a mushroom recipe book for dinner ideas.

Another morel sighting, and then another — well, maybe. One of the group calls to Mr. Ellifritz to inspect a sad little find: a bent piece of mold springing from a stump. The authority arrives with his pocket magnifying lens and examines the toadstool.

Nope. It’s not a morel and not edible either, he says, but adds that this particular species indicates morels are close. Sure enough, a quick look confirms morels close by this pathetic ‘shroom.

By the time Mr. Ellifritz pulls out his pocket compass to steer the group back to the parking lot, the hand baskets of most of the hunters are heavy with forest treats. Collectively, the group has probably pulled in several hundreds of dollars worth of wild mushrooms.

• • •

Of course, they’ll eat them — or a bunch like them. The club holds a monthly mushroom bake in the basement of the Chevy Chase Community Library in Chevy Chase. Members bring their hot plates, their exotic mushrooms or other hunting treasures, and an ink pen. The pen is used to sign the mandatory form releasing the club from responsibility in case anyone dies from something these foragers pull out of the oceans and woods. Bear meat, eel and all manner of strange and exotic meats, fungi and animal, have been fired up at the potlucks.

This party sounds like a good bet, but let’s move a little more slowly: Shiitake burger, anyone?

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