Oregon Outdoors: Morels of the Mountains

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ASHLAND — Mike Potts wanders carefully through a patch of Ponderosa pine mixed with Douglas fir, scanning the duff for the gem of the spring forest.

Morel mushrooms are popping out after a recent light rain, but these black diamonds remain hidden in the rough.

Then Potts stops, and it’s as if he stepped into the Trevi Fountain to find coins galore not visible from the adjacent Roman sidewalk.

“All you have to do is stop walking, and 20 of them appear in front of us,” says Potts, of Talent. “They’re just all over the place.”

Such is the life of a morel hunter, and anyone with a knife, a basket and a keen eye can be a forest fungi forager.

“It’s adding up to be a pretty good year,” Potts says.

While most Southern Oregonians enjoy occasionally collecting some of the local flora or fauna as food, not everyone can catch a spring chinook salmon and even fewer can put venison in the freezer.

But a quick study of what these tasty mushrooms look like and a little steering toward morel habitat can turn city-slickers into fungi slicers this month in the High Cascades.

“At 4,000 feet, they’re starting to pop right now,” says veteran picker Allen Walters, a former Oregon Department of Forestry fire investigator perhaps best known as the man working the pedals of an ODF fire truck steered by his dog in Ashland’s annual Fourth of July parade.

Morels have a distinct honeycombed appearance, and they fruit in the spring as the snow recedes and the forest duff warms. They can be blond, gray, black or brown, and anywhere from an inch or so to 6 inches or more.

They grow from spores that float on the wind and pop up in disturbed forest areas such as old logging roads, skid trails and recent burn scars.

They are prized by gourmet cooks, and commercial pickers fetch as much as $30 a pound for them.

But Average Joe’s have just as much right to cook like a chef with these fungi they legally can forage for free on federal forest lands, as long as they take no more than one gallon a day and five gallons a year.

Recreational pickers are required to cut their morels in half to ensure they aren’t later sold to mushroom buyers.

At this time of year, most of the prime picking is in federal forests above 4,000 feet.

When Potts is out foraging, he’s not just looking for morels, he’s also scanning for “indicator species” such as specific wildflowers to tell him whether the area is likely sporting morels.

Potts spies a patch of purple ground flowers and lightly shrugs.

“These wildflowers are called snow queens, and when you see them it’s slightly early,” Potts says.

Ditto for the nearby trilliums and their erect white petals.

“When the trilliums fade to purple, that’s ideal,” Potts says.

But even early trilliums create a treasure map toward morels.

Less than 10 feet away, another cluster of smallish morels pokes through the duff.

“In good years, they’re clustered like that,” Potts says. “Some years, you just find one over here, one over there.”

Along with morels, spring fungi include king bolete, shaggy mane and puffball mushrooms.

But morels are the overwhelming spring target for mushroom hunters, because they are relatively easy to identify even for rookies who otherwise might fear that their random forest forage could lead to stomach pains or worse.

Find something that looks like a morel, and you can be quite confident it’s the real McCoy.

“There’s no toxic lookalikes,” Potts says. “That why they’re so popular for mushroom hunters. They’re very easily identified.”

And they are easily prepared.

Many people soak them first in cold water — some add salt — to get rid of insects that like to lay eggs inside the hollow mushrooms. An easy recipe is to slice them and saute them in butter, but they can be used any way you’d use a grocery-store mushroom, including in sauces or omelets, and on pizza or steaks.

“I can’t seem to save them,” says Walters, a mushroom hunter for 40 years. “As soon as I get them, they’re gone.”

“Morels are a funny thing,” Walters says. “People think they know them. They don’t. They come up on every slope, they come up in rocks, grass. They’re the weirdest thing.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

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