For The Associated Press
The coveted morel or the prized matsutake may prove elusive for even the most experienced mushroom hunter. But budding mycologists can now compare notes at festivals and field trips across the United States, from spring, when the morel wakes from its winter sleep, until autumn, when the hunt for wild mushrooms dies with the first frost.
Interest in mushroom hunting is on the rise. Some credit recent waves of immigrants from mushroom-loving cultures. Others cite the natural-foods movement.
"We have two new clubs in Alaska, new clubs in Pennsylvania, a few new clubs in Montana, and there are more than a hundred local mushroom clubs throughout the country that remain independent," says Judy Roger, executive secretary of the North American Mycological Association, in Gladstone, Ore., which includes 60 mushroom clubs.
Some hot spots:
- In tiny Mesick, Mich., self-proclaimed mushroom capital of the world, the population swells in mid-May during the annual mushroom festival, which includes a week-long hunt for the biggest morel.
- Along the Oregon coast, there's the Yachats Village Mushroom Fest, a weekend of guided walks, exhibits and gourmet menus as the season draws to its autumnal close.
- And don't forget the Estill County Mountain Mushroom Festival in Irvine, Ky., early in the season, in late April. They take their fruiting fungi seriously in Irvine, where morels are also known as "dry land fish." Along with a morel contest and mushroom market, there's a parade, cooking demonstrations - even a Miss Mushroom Contest.
Tina Tasley, a third-generation mushroom hunter in Estill County, forages for mushrooms every weekend with her family during morel season, which in Kentucky can start in late March and run through early May.
"After we hunt for Easter eggs, we all go to the woods to go morel hunting," says Tasley, who has two sons, ages 3 and 5. "We make a contest of it. We like to make it fun for the kids."
Like most fungi foragers, the residents of Estill County are secretive about their favorite hunting spots. In an attempt to throw potential competitors off, "some people park their car in one spot and hunt in another," says Francine Bonny, head of the festival organizing committee.
But a prize as coveted as the morel, which goes for upwards of $40 per pound, cannot be kept hidden forever. These days, veteran hunters have more competition.
"There are more people out there in the woods hunting for morels," Tasley says. "When I was younger it would be nothing for four or five of us to come back with over 100 morels. We went a few weeks ago and found only five."
Tasley picks only for her own table, and might celebrate a good haul with a family mushroom fry. But while she enjoys eating morels, the fun, she says, is in finding them.
"We love to be outdoors. The hours go by and we don't even realize it. It's the tranquility of being in the woods."
It was love of the outdoors - coupled with a fondness for good food - that led New Yorker Danny Aita to the hunt.
"I've always been a hiker, and I would notice mushrooms when I was out walking in the woods," says Aita.
In 1982, a particularly rainy and fungus-rich season, he was inspired to do more than just observe. A call to the New York Botanical Gardens put him in touch with a mushroom club that sponsored guided walks. Most importantly, he learned to distinguish the edibles from the poisonous.
"After that I was hooked," says Aita.
Unlike Tasley, he looks for a variety of mushrooms. But he is equally secretive about where he finds them.
"You only take your best friends to your favorite spots, and you hope they remain your best friends," he says.
Aita also has noticed more people drawn to his rather obscure pastime. He says many are immigrants from Eastern Europe, particularly Poland and Russia.
Asian immigrants, too, are frequent fungi gatherers, says Roger, of the mycological association. And interest in natural foods also may be creating more mushroom enthusiasts, she believes.
Many professional mycologists welcome amateurs' interest.
"We need the amateurs out there looking. They can be in many places a professional can't," says Orson Miller, a retired professor of botany.
He and his wife, Hope, have co-authored many books on mushrooms, including the recent "North American Mushrooms: A Field Guide to Edible and Inedible Fungi" (FalconGuide), and have identified 105 new species. For some of those discoveries, he credits amateurs.
Now settled in the Rocky Mountains of Idaho, the Millers say mushroom hunters are drawn to their quiet pastime for different reasons.
"You get some who want to eat, some who want to photograph the mushrooms, some who use them to dye yarn and fabric, and now some are more interested in the scientific element," says Hope Miller.
Like many mycologists, the Millers have a direct line to their regional poison control center, where they help identify mushrooms.
Every year, the American Association of Poison Control Centers records several thousand cases of mushroom poisoning and a handful of fatalities. The latter are usually "people who thought they knew what the mushroom was," says Miller, noting that some poisonous mushrooms resemble edible ones from, say, Europe or Asia.
Should these isolated cases scare amateurs from the woods?
Not if you're cautious, say the Millers. In nearly 50 years of mushroom hunting, they have had only one mild case of discomfort, an allergic reaction to a mushroom. Since people can react differently, they advise trying new mushrooms in small quantities.
And, of course, follow the golden rule of mushroom hunting: When in doubt, throw it out.
(Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)