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It's morel season

But hunters are very, very quiet about it

But hunters are very, very quiet about it

May 02, 2007|by JULIE E. GREENE

A woman wants to go morel mushroom hunting with her mother-in-law, but her in-law refuses to share her hunting spot.

The mother-in-law's explanation: "We're just waiting to see if she sticks around."

That story was shared by Elizabeth Barron, a Rutgers University doctoral student researching morel mushroom hunters and their ecological understanding of the mushrooms and their habitats.

Hunting spots for the morel mushroom, which has just come into its possibly monthlong season, are top secret, Barron said.

"You see, you don't tell everybody where you go, because next year everybody else would go," said Stewart Brennan, 87, of Clear Spring.

"It's like your secret fishing hole," said Richard Lantz, 58, of Sabillasville, Md. You don't tell others where it is.

"I love to hunt them. It's just like hunting anything else. When you really find a lot, it's kind of the excitement of the hunt and the reward for your efforts," Lantz said.

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Brennan and Lantz were children when their fathers taught them to hunt for morel mushrooms, which look like coral, but are spongy.

"There wasn't too many people that used to hunt them, but now everybody does," Brennan said.

Brennan wasn't sure whether he'd go hunting for morels because he "can"t get around (the) mountain too good." He might go if there are warm nights, he said.

Morels usually can be found by April and are typically gone by Mother's Day, Lantz said. This season got a late start, probably because of the cooler April weather. Usually black morels come into season first, followed by gray, yellow and white ones.

No map for morels

Both the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park and Catoctin Mountain Park in northern Frederick County permit people to hunt for morels on park property, officials with the two parks said. People are permitted to hunt for limited quantities for their own consumption but not to sell morels commercially, officials said.

According to information at the National Park Service's Web sites, the daily limit for morel harvesting is less than one gallon at Catoctin and half a gallon at C&O.

Two studies are being done regarding morels, parks officials said.

In addition to Barron's study, Steve Stephenson, a research professor with the University of Arkansas' Department of Biological Sciences, has been conducting a two-year study at area national parks concerning morels.

Stephenson has set up a study for the National Park Service to try to determine how harvesting morels affects the morel populations.

Becky Loncosky, a biologist at Catoctin, said some local people think there have been fewer morels in recent years.

Barron is examining whether the mushrooms have been overharvested and are declining in the area.

So far, Barron is leaning against the notion that morels are being overharvested.

"Mostly because people feel they are so difficult to find that it's very unlikely that people are finding all that are out there," Barron said.

One reason people might have trouble finding morels is some of the trees they are associated with have been experiencing troubles, Barron said.

Dutch elm disease has affected the health of elm trees, while the emerald ash borer has hurt ash trees, Barron said.

Loncosky said there are few elm trees left at Catoctin, but the emerald ash borer hasn't been seen in the park yet.

But hunters can look beyond elm trees. Which trees to hunt near depends on which type of morel you're looking for, Lantz said.

The theory that has worked for him: Black morels grow near tulip poplars, gray ones grow near ash trees, yellow morels grow near elms or in old apple orchards, and white morels grow near ash, elm and old apple trees.

Stephenson said there are many theories regarding which trees morels grow near. So far, his study has found morels more commonly near tulip poplars and box elder trees - more around the latter.

Fry them or put them in ice cream

Lantz said all morels taste a bit like beef, but he prefers the gray ones, which are the most tender.

For reasons of taste, morels shouldn't be eaten raw, Lantz said. He cuts morels in half before soaking them in salted water for a day to kill the bacteria and little bugs.

One thing morel hunters tend to agree on, according to some local mushroom hunters and researchers, is that the mushrooms are tasty when fried in butter.

Lantz fries them in butter a variety of ways: rolling them in flour first, dipping them in eggs and rolling them in batter before deep-frying them, chopping them up and frying them with eggs and cheese, or deep-frying them.

As per his preference, Peter Leach, co-editor of "Malfred Ferndock's Morel Cookbook," said he would never roll morels in flour.

Leach's cookbook, which was published in 1986, includes recipes to stretch the use of small amounts of morels (Quesadillas con Hongos) and what he considers a conversation stopper (morel sundaes).

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