Bill Russell’s free weekly wild mushroom identification and discussion sessions at Webster’s are very much like an actual wild mushroom hunt. You never know what you will find.
Last week, during what should have been prime morel season, veteran mushroom hunter Mark Kauffman showed up with empty hands. After exchanging some comments about the weather, deemed bad because of all the sunshine, the Mifflin County resident dramatically pulled one morel from his shirt pocket. It was old, on its way to becoming a dried morel, but he fessed up that he picked about 6 dozen in the previous two weeks.
“It is not,” Kaufmann said, “a good year. Not anything like last year; I still have dried ones from last year when it was a bumper crop.”
Russell noted that Mifflin County has a different “weather system … another zone” and different species of mushrooms . Other factors that affect the fruiting of fungi include disturbance, whether by logging or fire or flood. Hiking or walking can disturb and stimulate mushrooms to fruit, and Russell reminisced about Hort Woods on campus where chanterelles and honey mushrooms used to bloom with wild abandon in the summer.
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Any conversation with Bill Russell about mushrooms ultimately involves Latin terms. While novice hunters refer to the morels they find by the color — black, yellow — Russell knows them more intimately. The yellow morel’s full name is Morchella esculentoides and the black one is M. angusticeps, but they are not the only species in the genus.
Russell’s book, “Field Guide to Wild Mushrooms of Pennsylvania and the Mid-Atlantic,” published by Penn State Press in 2006, is the current authoritative guide for our region but he is working on an updated book for the same publisher that will detail the name changes that have occurred in the past decade. The discussion turned to Linux OS and interoperability issues and Russell is looking for a Linux expert to help him out. After some commiserating about computer issues, the topic turned to Austrian mushrooms and the European penchant for anthropomorphism, with postcards with grinning morels with jaunty caps and lederhosen.
Boulder, Colo., residents Halina and Chuck Palmer arrived next, hungry to know where to look locally for the esteemed morel. Polish-born Halina is avid about hunting mushrooms and the couple showed many phone photos of notable king boletes and the chanterelles that they harvest in Colorado.
“The floods in Boulder provided an extreme disturbance and we had runoff that brought the spores right down from the mountains and into town. We had an amanita pop up in our front yard!” (The amanita is a deadly toxic mushroom whose genus is responsible for 95 percent of mushroom poisonings.)
But in the foothills of the Front Range isn’t where the Palmers scored their cache.
“Last year we found so many chanterelles that six of us couldn’t carry them all,” Chuck said. Halina described how she stood in the middle of a mountain stream with the chanterelles in a wire basket that she submerged in the running water for a first cleaning to remove the needles and dirt, “because you are picking so fast you just can’t deal with it. This gets 80 percent of the junk out of them and then you can finish them at home.”
The next topic was the king bolete, aka cepes. Russell lamented that he has only found that mushroom once in his life, and the Palmers described how they find many boletes near Vail. Halina rapturously described one that she found that was 4.7 pounds late in the season the year after the floods as fellow mycophiles nodded in appreciation.
The mushroom circle widened when Becky Johnson and Chris Smyth, Penn State research scientists in molecular and cellular biology and plant pathology respectively, arrived with bags in hand. What’s inside? The contents of a brown paper bag spilled out on the table and several specimens of winecaps, Stropharia rugosoannulata, in various states of maturity emerged. Russell explained that the winecaps prefer to grow in wood chips and was surprised to learn they are already appearing in carefully tended garden areas.
The other bag held a bedraggled batch of another species of morel, mostly stem with a tiny semi-attached cap and Latin names were turned until finally it was agreed that it was Morchella punctipes, native to our region, and not M. semilibera, a European species.
The 90-minute educational session, interspersed with comings and goings and beverage breaks, went quickly and the tips shared about hunting, propagating and cooking were inspirational. A running joke about GPS coordinates continued throughout the discussion. Nobody was sharing their spots, rather confirming what sort of habitat to consider.
What about the expert, Bill Russell? How many morels has he found?
“I usually don’t go for morels because of all the other hunters and the rampaging springtime ticks. Lately, I know of many more obscure mushrooms that are as good as morels,” he said
To learn about those obscure mushrooms or to positively identify what you think might be a morel, go to Webster’s on Monday during wild mushroom season, from right now until the snow falls. You can also check out Russell’s website ( www.brmushrooms.com) for info about more formal presentations and lots of practical advice about how to be safe while learning about one of Pennsylvania’s greatest natural resources.