The morel mushroom is a prized delicacy that grows in the wild in the Central United States. Sadly, while mushroom hunting still takes place in Central Illinois every spring, the increasing development of what was once prime wild mushroom territory is making mushroom hunting more difficult.
Morel mushrooms begin to appear in the month of April in Central Illinois. Daytime temperatures need to be near 60 F, with nighttime temperatures staying in the 40s F, before the mushrooms will bloom. Morels bloom best after April showers have passed through the area.
Mushrooms can be found in wooded areas in Central Illinois near creeks and stream beds. The Mackinaw River Valley, which winds through McLean, Woodford and Tazwell counties, is a prime location. Morels cluster and grow around the bases of large trees, under fallen trees and limbs and under the cover of woodland plants and wet leaves. Visitors to the area can hunt for morels in public woods around Lake Bloomington and Lake Evergreen, both just north of Bloomington-Normal, and at Dawson Lake inside Moraine View State Park near LeRoy.
The morel mushroom has a peaked cap that is pitted with undulating, folded crevices. It is light beige in color with a dark brown highlight around the crevices. The stalk of the Morel has a flesh-like feel and appearance. It is extremely important that fledgling mushroom hunters know which mushrooms are edible morels--and which mushrooms may be toxic.
Hunting for morel mushrooms is a pleasant, slow walk in the woods. It takes a sharp eye to spot the mushrooms so don't hurry. Try to stay off any beaten pathways. As you walk through the woods, use a long stick to push back brush around the bases of trees and fallen limbs to reveal the mushrooms that may be present. Work a likely area in a careful manner, starting at 7 o'clock to your left, examining the brush areas around to the 5 o'clock position on your right.
When you find morels, use a sharp knife to cut them off cleanly at the base. Morels usually appear in groups. The custom in Central Illinois is to harvest all but one or two of the mushrooms found in a group, leaving a few smaller specimens for wildlife and future mushroom hunters. A standard plastic shopping bag full of morels would be considered a very good haul. You can't store morels for any length of time. They should be eaten the same day they are picked for best flavor.
Because much of the Central Illinois woodlands have been developed in the last 25 years, mushrooming territory and opportunities have shrunk considerably. Many remaining stands of Illinois timber have become privatized, so mushroom hunters must be mindful of trespassing. Asking permission to mushroom hunt on someone's land is a courtesy, but don't be surprised if your request is gently turned down. Owners of these woodlands know their properties contain prized morels and may refuse to allow you to hunt there.
- Photo Credit mushroom image by masteraz from Fotolia.com
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