Under The Big Dead Elm
It's finally here, the start of the Morel mushroom season. It reminds me of a spring "trick or treat" for everyone instead of just the young at heart. Late April and all of May is the time the real treasure hunters are out in the woods in full force. It’s a once a year abundance of eatable fungus that people of all cultures have a taste for.
Whether they are simmered in butter and piled on T-bone steaks or batter fried and devoured by the platefuls, this rich delicacy is as much fun to hunt as it is to eat.
It’s the ultimate game of hide and seek. Strolling along ridge tops of mature woods with little overgrowth is the preference of many but for the hardcore picker who wants to be able to hunt mushrooms throughout the complete cycle, there are rather tough and risky places to look. Steep rocky hillsides, berry and briar filled woods as a result of recent logging and thick creek and river bottoms loaded with poison ivy and snakes are the territory of the more hard core.
For the basic newcomer this enjoyable pastime can be confusing. The thought that there should be mushrooms under every dead Elm or Apple tree is a fallacy.
Time of year, temperature, humidity, moisture content of the soil as well as soil type has everything to do with whether or not you are successful. For the beginner it’s best to cover a lot of ground on south facing hillsides. The dead Elms on the mid range of South facing hillsides normally come in first. Then before you know it you’ll begin to find the mushrooms are popping up more towards the top of the hill. This is because the sun warms up these sections first and the cold night time temperatures aren’t hindering the warmth they need through the night. Over a 2 week period you’ll get a good idea of what parts of the hillsides are producing.
As you cover more ground you’ll get a fix on just how and where the mushrooms grow around the trees. If it’s a hot and dry spring the mushrooms will be around the trees with new grass. If it’s wet and hot the mushrooms will struggle to beat the growing grass and pop up all around it. Hot sun burns the tops of unprotected mushrooms so on hot days one should pick early mornings to avoid the heat.
If it’s cold and dry they will test your drive. This is the worst for pickers and the mushrooms are thin and small. This is when the first couple of warm days and nights with rain can start the ball really rolling.
Mushrooms will grow on all sides of the hill eventually so when your south facing hills start to dry up try West then East and finally the North. Don’t be fooled, just because the North is last doesn’t mean it’s the smallest harvest. This is when heat, overgrowth and bugs are a rule but it’s also when you can find the mother-load. Thick stemmed giants lurk in tall grass and cover. They are normally 70% yellows and 30% greys. Finding 5 pounds per tree is not unheard of.
So you have the tools to start looking now lets talk about the tree itself. The condition of the Elm is very important. I look for what I call fresh dead. The kind that look like a normal Elm without buds. (witches broom stick) If the trunk of the tree is littered with woodpecker holes and long open cracks in the bark, you’ve hit pay dirt. Your biggest gold mine is multiples. The more dead Elms in a group the bigger the bounty. If these trees aren’t loaded simply keep checking them every 2 or 3 days, you are probably too early.
Most people don’t go to check small diameter trees. Bad move, size isn’t the biggest factor it’s the condition of the bark. I’ve found some of my biggest mushrooms around 6 or 8 inch diameter trees.
Finally, for new pickers I’d like to help you fill your paper bags and make it possible to eat them throughout the short season. You need to know where to look.
*Do not just look around the base of the tree. It’s important to know that the mushrooms follow the roots and branches of an Elm. Stand underneath the tree and follow the branches out. Sometimes they extend as far out as 25 feet and if you just quick glance at the base of an Elm you're only robbing yourself of the whole load that tree offers. Walk out directly under them as far as they protrude and search those spots good.
One more hint on looking for the mushrooms under trees, start at the bottom or lowest first mushroom you see and work your way uphill around that tree. I go 2 steps and look 360 degrees. Grab a 4 foot stick and gently move the grass...you’ll be surprised at how many you would have overlooked working downhill instead of up. Last of all I'd like to remind you to take a knife and cut the mushrooms flush to the ground...Do not pull / dig up the whole dirt clod with the roots because if you plan on hunting each year it's important to leave their root systems.
There is one more plus to make things even more exciting, Every year I come across newborn fawns...if you come across them do not get close. They are laying where their mother left them so she can go eat. Use a zoom lens and take a few pictures from a ways away. Be very quiet and back out and leave. One more thing, never go up and try to touch/pet them!