WARSAW — When local farmer Kevin Boyer had barely mastered walking, his father took him into the woods.
Don Boyer taught his son how to plow fields, bale hay and care for ailing livestock, but he also passed on a knack for spotting spore-laden gold growing up out of the damp, forest soil.
Few things get Hoosiers more excited when April rolls around than the possibility of heading to the woods and hunting for a delicacy with a growing season shorter than the haircut on a grizzled Marine Corps sergeant.
Enthusiasts of the morel mushroom, also called shrooms or sponges, prize the fungus for its flavor and texture. And, for those who love hunting them as much as eating them, the whereabouts of so-called honey holes are kept as secret as a nuclear launch sequence.
For Kevin Boyer, a recent conversation with his sponge-hunting mentor led to an impromptu hunt on Wednesday, May 1.
“He (Don) told me he’s been having trouble getting around and that he didn’t think he’d be picking any more mushrooms,” said Kevin. The admission sparked the 50-year-old Triton High School grad to hit the woods and do some scouting and what followed left the junior Boyer scratching his head.
“This surprised me because I hadn’t really found very many yet,” said Boyer after locating several large clumps of gray morels with groups of two and three scattered in an area the size of an office cubicle. He made note of the location and retrieved his dad. “I’d heard of some people finding some grays and blacks, but we needed some heat,” he said after collecting nearly 100 grays in 15 to 20 minutes with his 87-year-old father. “We’ve got plenty of moisture.”
Wielding a cane, Don Boyer still showed some of his prowess of old “There is a second one right over there,” he said, pointing to a previously picked spot with one two-inch-high hanger on. But, the younger Boyer has clearly accepted and taken ownership of family morel master.
“When we were younger, we used to go up into Michigan and he’d point them out for me to pick,” said Kevin. “Now, I’m pointing them out for him.”
Some morel aficionados have developed such a passion for the special type of mushroom that they’ve become somewhat of an expert on a subject that still holds a mother lode of ambiguity.
According to morel expert Chris Matherly from Georgia, many factors come into play to determine the quality of a mushroom season, which in Kosciusko County can begin as early as the first few weeks in April and extend up to or slightly past Memorial Day. He said morels can be found in every U.S. state except Florida.
“They are probably the most sought after wild mushrooms on the planet,” Matherly said in a recent YouTube video.
Matherly, who leads mushroom hunts in multiple states, referred to the mushroom as the fruit of an organism that grows under the ground, known as the mycelium. “It’s the plant that’s in the ground and the mushroom is the fruit itself,” he said. “They start growing when the ground temperature is around 52 degrees.”
According to Matherly and another morel hunter, Don King, morels grow in two different ways.
“Most morels are microrisal with a certain type of tree,” said Matherly.
“Morels grow in two different ways — saprobic and microrisal — King said in an interview with an Ohio online publication on morel hunting. “Saprobic mushrooms decompose dead matter, which is why morels can be found by dead trees. Microrisal mushrooms grow in a symbiotic relationship with living trees.”
Morel mushrooms begin to appear earlier in the year in the southern states and are found later as far north as Canada.
Matherly said another factor that can pre-determine a mushroom season’s success level is the amount of snowfall during the previous winter. For most local hunters, however, moisture and warmer temperatures are early indicators. Morel purists also caution novice and first-time hunters to leave the plastic grocery bags at home and to instead collect morels in onion sacks or anything else made of a mesh to allow spores to fall back onto the forest floor during hunting.
Opinions are also numerous regarding what types of trees render the most likely mushroom-hunting success.
“Usually dead elm, like over there,” said Boyer, pointing to a spot in his freshly-picked woods. “We’d cut that one down this winter, and the bark’s kind of gotta be fresh. They can’t be real, real old, but sometimes they do grow around the old ones.”
Boyer also advises hunters to watch where they’re stepping, but only in order to avoid stepping on one. The best way to spot the morsels is to look out ahead about five to 10 feet. “You gotta look out there, instead of right down here by your feet because you can’t see them with the stuff (plants on the forest floor) on top of them,” said Boyer.