A morel mushroom, with characteristic pits and ridges in its cap, emerges from the new spring growth at Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge. The fruiting body of a below-ground fungus, the morel is also known as a sponge mushroom and is considered a delicacy by many.
Mushroom Madness Finds a Welcome at Several National Wildlife Refuges
Timing is everything, enthusiasts say, when stalking the wild morel. When the first spring rains dampen the forest floor, that's the signal to join other boot–clad, basket–carrying fungiphiles in search of the edible spring mushroom. Among the best places to find the elusive delicacy: some National Wildlife Refuges, particularly in the Midwest.
"You have to come when the weather is right," says Charlie Marshall, park ranger at Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge in Missouri, where mushroom–hunting season runs April 10 to May 20. "If you miss the window, the forest understory is too great and you can't find them."
Morels, the fruiting bodies of a below–ground fungus, are among the few fruits visitors can pick on selected refuges. No permit or registration is required. "Mushrooms are important indicators of a vibrant forest," says Greg Corace, a forester at Seney National Wildlife Refuge in Michigan. The refuge is open to morel hunters in early spring.
For many, the morel's reputation as finicky and notoriously hard to spot just sweetens the chase.
Rod Hansen, a law enforcement officer at DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge in Iowa, picked up morel–hunting fever from his grandparents. Now he scours the woods each spring for the hollow, cone–shaped, spongy–looking mushroom, which can range from an inch to four inches in diameter. "Around here, the deer will get them before they get too big," he says. "I've had many times when I've come home with absolutely nothing. Then two years ago, my two daughters and I brought home the equivalent of two five–gallon bucketfuls." DeSoto welcomes morel hunters from April 15 until May 31.
Refuges ask visitors to pick in a conservation–conscious manner, gathering morels in a mesh or porous bag or basket, for example, so loose spores will re–seed refuge land. A few refuges limit mushroom–hunting to designated areas in order to protect wildlife habitat and to ensure public safety, such as DeSoto and Mingo National Wildlife Refuge in Missouri. Squaw Creek Refuge limits morel hunting to hills and bluffs to protect eagles and other birds nesting in its bottomland and marshes.
Mingo Refuge allows mushroom hunting from March 1 through September 15. Visitors can collect up to one gallon per day for personal use from designated areas.
Throughout the Refuge System restricted areas are well marked and morel hunters who disregard posted limits are subject to fines of up to $100,000 or 12 months in prison for trespassing and illegal take. All mushrooms picked are also forfeited.
Some wild mushrooms are poisonous. To avoid a possibly deadline mistake in mushroom identification, Squaw Creek Refuge makes available to visitors, on request, a copy of the publication Edible and Poisonous Mushrooms by Barbara Bassett. For an online version, see http://mdc.mo.gov/nathis/mushrooms/mushroom/. For more information about morels, including recipes, Hansen recommends: http://www.morelmushroom.info/.
And here's Rod Hansen's favorite morel recipe:
Clean morels; dip in beaten egg, then in flour and seasoning; deep fat fry or sauté battered morels.