If you like mushrooms, you undoubtedly love morels. They are meaty and richly flavored, as their botanical name — Morchella esculenta — points out. Morchella is their genus, and esculenta means they are flat-out delicious.
They are also usually rare and expensive when they show up in our markets and farmers’ markets in mid-spring. Except for this year, because despite all the woe and misery last fall’s fires caused, they also cause an abundant fruiting of morel mushrooms the following spring — which is right now.
Morels are usually elusive. Their earthy colors blend in with the forest floor’s colors. You can search all day without finding one or walk right by a patch without seeing them. But maybe not this year.
As Jennifer Frazer writes in Scientific American, “There is at least one place that morels are known to fruit abundantly and reliably: in the ashes of fires in the conifer forests of the western U.S.”
The morels that follow a fire are a bumper crop whose fruits are called “burn morels.” The part we eat is the fruiting body of the real organism, a wide, thick network of hair-like white strands under the soil called the mycelium. The mycelium is part decomposer, feeding on the dead and decaying plant matter it is helping to take apart into nutrients, and part symbiotic partners with tree roots.
In this latter instance, the mycelium is a mycorrhizal fungus that envelops tree roots. The roots supply the mycelium with sugar, and the mycelium then grows out into the surrounding soil to scavenge scarce nutrients like phosphorus and necessities like water, and bring them back to the tree roots.
Scientists don’t know exactly what triggers the mycelium to produce an abundance of mushrooms after a fire, but my guess is that the ashes, when rained on, flood the soil with suddenly soluble nutrients that were otherwise locked up in the wood and stems and leaves of the trees.
Faced with a flood of nutrients, the mycelium decides it’s time to reproduce and does so with a vengeance.
So this means a bonanza for commercial hunters who will deliver burn morels to our stores and to recreational hunters who go morel hunting for fun. If you go, here’s some information developed recently by teams of scientists working in Yosemite and in the Pacific Northwest, Montana and Utah.
If you find one burn morel, think of that mushroom as the center of a circle with a 15-foot radius. Burn morels tend to grow in clusters, so if you find one, there’s a good chance there are many others growing nearby.
After studying the burned forest floor carefully, the scientists found that burn morels didn’t show up in plots where less than half of the surface litter burned and only occasionally in plots where the litter burned between 50 and 99 percent.
“The vast majority were on completely burned soil surface litter,” Frazer writes. “Further, morels were much more likely to occur within 23 feet of other morels and even more so within 11 feet of each other.”
Whether you find them in a burned-over forest or in the mushroom bins at our markets or farm stands, nab ‘em while you can, for they won’t be around for long. They are the ultimate accompaniment to a good steak and a glass of red wine. They go with roast meats, stews, sauces, gravies, and because they are hollow, they can be sliced in two and stuffed with a soft cheese like an époisses.
Sonoma magazine remembers 10 beloved Wine Country restaurants, landmarks and wineries destroyed by the fires here