Making Morel Judgments

by Jim Eagleman

The late Sam Rosen, Nashville resident and circuit court judge, was a big mushroom fan. He called me one day at the Nature Center to get confirmation on an unknown fungus. I brought over some reference books to his chambers at the Brown County courthouse.

“Don’t worry, you’re not on trial,” he joked.

We tried our best to key out the plant, working slowly through the alternating two choices all dichotomous keys possess. It was a gilled mushroom with a flakey stem and brown color. We finally relied on the Indiana University Biology Department for the exact identification.

I was grateful for that first research experience with the judge. He called on me again whenever he found other unusual mushrooms. He gave me an inscribed copy of his book, A Judge Judges Mushrooms, as a returned favor after I loaned him some slides. Despite our long-lasting friendship, he only shared with me one little tip when it came to finding the elusive morel mushroom, a Hoosier delicacy. Like his favorite fishing hole, he said, he never gave away secrets.

“Look for the morel when the dogwood leaves are the size of a mouse’s ear!” he said.

I doubt there’s any other Mid-Western plant that coerces perfectly sane people into slippery and rainy woods each spring with awkward poncho, bread bag, and walking stick—perhaps a search for natural Brown County herbs like Goldenseal and Ginseng. But the herbs appear later when it’s buggy and humid. You get dirty and sweaty before you take the roots to a licensed buyer. Satisfaction isn’t realized until a check is issued.

With the morel, careful handling allows the picker a tasty addition to his supper. It’s well worth wet feet and sore muscles that day. And “careful handling” means to take along an open mesh onion or potato bag rather than a plastic one. It allows better air flow and the morel spores might drop along your path.

Morchella esculenta is edible and “choice,” say the field guides. The common “white” morel varies in color from cream to yellowish-brown. They seem to appear in color phases: first the small black ones, then the taller browns, followed by the large yellows. For proper identification, look for the cap attached to the stalk at its base. The entire stem is hollow. Often called the “sponge mushroom,” the convoluted top with deep fissures resembles a small brain-like cap, sometimes barely poking up from the leaf litter. I’ve often had to brush away dead leaves to reveal the entire plant.

“The best thing about morels is they don’t look like any other mushroom,” says a friend. He’s right. They aren’t to be confused with other fungus plants that require exact identification before consumption.

When I tell friends I found a few in the park, they look surprised and say, “Oh, you can pick them in the park?” The mushroom is considered a “fruiting” body and collecting fruits, nuts, and berries in our Indiana state parks is legal. Just stay on trails to be safe and assured of where you are.

“Tell me where to find them?” I’m asked next. Pointing to a distant park vista that reaches to the horizon, I say, “…out there.”

Actually, morel locations are as varied as the people who look for them. They are found in old orchards, creek sides and bottoms, roadside ditches and moist hills, and about any other location other than exactly where you are looking! They appear around ash and elm stumps, but I’ve also found them at the base of white oaks, tulip, poplars, and sycamores. I once spotted them in our mowed yard when I was putting on my shoes to go out mushroom hunting. That day I didn’t have far to go.

To celebrate this springtime Hoosier tradition, Brown County State Park will host its second annual Morel Mushroom Festival, Saturday, May 3, 2008. Guided hikes, collecting contests, live birds of prey, and live music will be offered with the Friends of the park selling morels beginning at 1:00 pm. Go to <> for details or call the Nature Center (812) 988-5240.