Her lawn looks like a meadow
And if she mows the place
She leaves the clover standing
And the Queen Anne’s Lace!
—Edna St. Vincent Millay, “Portrait By a Neighbor”
Recipe(s) later. This is just a quick PSA to let you know that morel season has started in Michigan, and if you have a yard, you may have some growing right outside your door.
They only grow in the part of of our yard that’s as much patchy dirt and moss as grass, so apparently free wild mushrooms are another of the many perks of completely neglecting your lawn and letting it revert to something closer to its natural state. No guarantees, of course. There are lots of other arguments for giving up the peculiar tradition of pouring gallons of water into the ground and spending hours manicuring a bunch of grass that doesn’t even produce anything edible (some of which are mentioned by the 2008 NYTimes article on moss lawns). But I think the movement for no-maintenance lawns and landscaping with native species should start talking up the possibility of Free Morels. Maybe the possibility of free, annual harvests of delicious mushrooms that cost $30/lb+ would outweigh the potential social opprobrium incurred by dead grass and dandelions.
About a half dozen of them appeared last year. I’d never picked wild mushrooms before and was leery at first, but the descriptions in the guide books seemed pretty straightforward. They’re even in the “recommended for beginners” part of one of my guides. Edible morels are hollow all the way through, both stems and caps. Also, although there’s a little lip where the cap attaches to the stem, there’s no real overhang—they’re like lollipops, not umbrellas.
False morels are not completely hollow—one kind, the Gyromitra species, is fleshy all the way through. It has small air pockets and chambers, but nothing you could mistake for hollowness. The other, the Verpa species, has wispy, cotton candy-like fibers inside the stem. And both feature an overhang—in the Gyromitra it’s sometimes slight, but they have other giveaways—they tend to have a different color and look wavy or lobed, not pitted and ridged like edible morels. The Verpa species has a distinct overhang. They somtimes look like empty walnut shells balanced atop thick, white fingers or like a wig on a wig stand.
Not morels. Consumption not advised.
Also, except in extraordinarily rare circumstances, false morels aren’t deadly. Some people actually consider them edible if prepared correctly. Drying and boiling leaches out most of the toxin in the Gyromitra species. Most guides still recommend not eating them for multiple meals or on consecutive days, but if you do accidentally eat one, the worst that happens is you’ll suffer some gastrointestinal distress. The Verpa species can also cause vomiting and diarrhea, but are still eaten by many people. According to 100 Edible Mushrooms, which is by a guy who’s written an entire book about Morels, Verpa mushrooms are even counted as “morels” in some morel-hunting competitions.
The ones that grown in our yard are hollow and have no overhang. I’m pretty sure they’re yellow morels, but it’s hard to get more specific than that because although there are seven genetically distinct species of yellow morels, they aren’t morphologically distinct. However, they’re all delicious, so unless you’re a mycologist, who really cares? Last year, I cooked them in a cream sauce and tossed them with linguine, which we ate with the particular satisfaction of having gotten something very decadent for free and suffered no unfortunate side effects.