One of the most popular spring rituals for Ohio outdoorsmen and women is the hunt for wild turkeys. But coinciding with this annual tradition is another seasonal favorite the quest for edible wild mushrooms. Each spring, thousands of fungi hunters are inspired to scour Ohio’s forest floors and fields for these delectable hidden gems.
Depending on where you live in the state, mid-April through May is prime mushroom time, and while several species of Ohio mushrooms are fit for the dinner plate, the most passionately pursued is the morel.
Morels which are actually the fruit of a mushroom plant growing underground are cone-shaped and sponge-like in appearance. They grow anywhere from two- to twelve-inches tall and have a whitish stalk. Unlike other mushrooms, morels are hollow inside a quality that helps distinguish them from the similar-looking “false morel,” which is poisonous.
Similar to wild turkeys, morels are masters of blending in with their environment. Though you certainly don’t need a degree in botany to find them, you can improve your chances of discovery by having sharp eyes, a slow pace and lots of patience. Additionally, successful morel hunters need to understand the habitat in which these delicious earthen treats grow.
Morels generally thrive in moist soil and can be found growing near decaying logs, on live or downed trees, beneath layers of leaf litter or within the protective shelter of leafy fern fronds.
Janet Sweigart, a tree farmer in Hardin County, has been hunting mushrooms for at least 15 years. Her favorite place to poke around for morels is near recently dead or dying elm trees. “Morels can often be found several feet in all directions from the tree,” she says. “And if you find one, keep searching as there will probably be more in the vicinity.”
Weather has everything to do with the appearance of spring mushrooms, including morels, according to Sweigart. “Warmth and moisture are of prime importance,” she explains, adding that it needs to be fairly warm both night and day for a week or so before morels begin pushing above ground. “If it has been a dry spring, morels are likely to appear about five days after a good soaking rain,” she notes.
Sweigart watches for other natural signs to indicate that morels are popping up in Ohio’s woodlands, including apple blossoms in bloom and may apples (woodland wildflowers) opening to the umbrella stage. “When this happens, it’s time to grab the mushroom basket and head for the woods,” she says.
Accurate mushroom identification can mean the difference between a delicious meal and a possible trip to the emergency room. Never consume a mushroom unless you are 100 percent positive that it’s edible. Sweigart’s motto: “when in doubt, throw it out!” is sage advice.
A good mushroom field guide, featuring clear photos and detailed descriptions, is essential for anyone getting started in this earthy pursuit. Particular attention should be given to any points that can help you tell the difference between edible and poisonous mushrooms.
Ultimately, the best way to learn is at the heels of an experienced mushroom hunter. If you don’t know of any, the Mushroom Society of Ohio is a good place to start. Their web site denison.edu/collaborations/ohmushroom features general information about native mushrooms, and has a list of field trips, which are excellent opportunities for anyone wanting to know more about finding fungi.
No special permits or licenses are required when hunting mushrooms in the Buckeye State, but never go onto private property without first receiving permission. All of Ohio’s 20 state forests, which encompass more than 185,000 acres in 21 counties, allow individuals to collect mushrooms. Many state parks also permit hunting these much-sought after delicacies, but special rules or restrictions are likely to apply, so check with the park office before venturing out.
Those in search of mushrooms should be mindful that the state’s wild turkey hunting season is open through May 15 in all of Ohio’s 88 counties. Legal turkey hunting hours are one-half hour before sunrise to noon. For safety reasons, mushroom hunters are encouraged to wear blaze orange while in the woods during those times.
Mushroom hunting is a great springtime activity in so many ways. There’s the thrill of discovery and the reward of a tasty dinner treat it’s also a perfect time to enjoy the many spring wildflowers blanketing Ohio’s woodlands and fields.