- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 19, 2007

THURMONT, Md. — When spring nights turn mild and the poplar trees are tinged with green, Betty Calimer and her family start scanning the forest floor for morels.

The tasty mushrooms have been prized by generations of home cooks and gourmet chefs, but fungus hunters are finding fewer and fewer to pick in the Western Maryland woods.

“We used to find them by the dishpan full, but not now,” said Mrs. Calimer, 75, of Sabillasville, who started picking mushrooms in the Catoctin Mountains as a girl. In recent years, she could barely find enough on a good day to fill a bread bag, she said.

Now researchers from the U.S. Forest Service and Rutgers University are asking mushroom hunters to help them figure out why morels are disappearing and how to sustain future harvests. Elizabeth Barron, a Rutgers graduate student in geography, aims to interview 50 persons this season about their experiences gathering morels in two national parks: Catoctin Mountain Park near Thurmont and the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park, which parallels the Potomac River for nearly 185 miles from the District to Cumberland, Md.

This is the third year of the four-year study, funded by $97,000 from the National Park Service. It is the first scientific examination of morel harvesting east of the Mississippi River, said Miss Barron and Marla Emery, a U.S. Forest Service geographer from Burlington, Vt., who is the lead investigator.

Harvesters know at least as much about mushrooms as mycologists and forest managers, Miss Barron said last month while scouting likely morel spots in the Catoctins. “There’s generations of knowledge there,” she said.

David Draper, 47, of Hagerstown, is an example. He learned from his parents and has taught his children to look for the wrinkled, elongated cones near poplar, ash and elm trees and in old apple orchards. He likes his mushrooms battered and fried with eggs, a popular recipe.

“I think they’re a delicacy,” Mr. Draper said.

Diners at many high-priced restaurants think so, too, which may help explain the reported decline in the mushrooms, which sell online for $23 to $40 a pound. Miss Barron and Miss Emery said increased harvesting is just one of several suspected factors behind the lower morel numbers reported by local pickers and park managers. Other variables include the loss of trees to development, rising populations of mushroom-eating deer and the warming climate.

Miss Barron and Miss Emery hope to determine whether morel populations really are declining in the area; there has been no reported decline in the Pacific Northwest, where wild morels are a multimillion-dollar business. The researchers also will document harvester experiences and practices, and make recommendations for sustainable harvests.

The rules for mushroom hunting on federal lands vary from park to park. Harvesters may take an unlimited number of morels, for personal use only, from Catoctin Mountain Park but only a half-gallon a day along the C&O; Canal.

In her interviews with morel pickers, Miss Barron starts by reassuring them that she is not interested in learning their hunting spots.

“That’s kind of like sacred — like a really guarded family secret,” she said.

Mrs. Calimer’s son-in-law, Richard Masser, proved that point when someone asked during one of Miss Barron’s recent group presentations what morels taste like.

“They taste so good that I’ll never take you where I find them,” he said.

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