This year could produce a morel mushroom harvest worth millions upon millions of dollars.
2014 experienced a glut of forest fires in the northwest regions of the U.S. and Canada. Multiple fires burned thousands of acres from northern California on up through the Yukon and Northwest Territories of Canada. That’s good news for lovers and hunters of morel mushrooms, as the mycological word on the street is that this spring is going to produce the biggest morel harvest in years, maybe even of all time.
Morels are arguably the most widely-sought mushroom in North America, thanks to their deliciously earthy flavor, their fairly unmistakable appearance (even a mycological novice can quickly learn to properly identify the distinctive morel), and the fact that they are resistant to domestic cultivation (it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to reliably grow morels on purpose). They also show up in spring, that wonderful time of year to be in the woods when bugs are relatively few, the air is crisp and cool, and there’s still a dearth of new, green undergrowth to hide tasty mushrooms.
Morels also appear in greater abundance in areas where fire damage occurred the year before. 2014 is on record as being one of the worst years ever recorded for wildfires in several areas, and that is why there is such excitement this year concerning the upcoming morel season. This phenomenon of post-fire morel flushes is such an anticipated and reliable event that there are even mushrooming terms for it. “Burn morels” or “fire morels” are also considered a separate category by many; they’re also known as “blacks” if they show up earlier in the season, and “grays” if later. And yes, those names do generally correspond to their coloring (blacks are also often smaller than grays).
Western Canadian provinces are gearing up for what some declare could be an over-$100 million morel harvest this year. British Columbia suffered its third worst fire season ever by October of last year, with 1,424 fires consuming close to 1,500 square miles. The Northwest Territories also experienced a record fire season. The NWT is expecting a flood of hundreds if not thousands of pickers, buyers and other of-the-moment entrepreneurs.
One hunter/picker, Walter Brown of the town of Yellowknife, NWT province, declared, “This is going to be the biggest morel harvest in the history of the world. There could be as much as $100 million worth this summer in the NWT.”
In 2014, California, Oregon and Washington acreage that succumbed to wildfires also increased, and shows no signs of slowing down from year to year, as drought and other fire-friendly conditions appear to be a predictable norm at least in the short term. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection reported that the average number of fires per year has been around 800; last year it was double that. Officials in the states and provinces are preparing for an influx of non-resident mushroom pickers and buyers, as well as attempting to get the word out to the locals to get in on the action.
For example, officials in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest in Washington are preparing for commercial harvesters who they expect will converge on the recently burned areas of the forest. Staff Officer for the forest, Stuart Wooley, said that commercial harvesters will be required to obtain permits. Information provided by Forest Services will also be translated into multiple languages to accommodate the language barriers associated with the different ethnic groups expected to take part in the morel boom.
Wooley also indicated that officials are aware of the environmental impact of having so many people in the woods at one time. Forest personnel will be addressing that issue as well.
“Directing commercial harvesters to designated camping areas,” Wooley said, “will minimize impacts to fragile soils within the fire areas, help with vegetation recovery, protect riparian areas from large group camping impacts, and limit impact to wildlife.”
Wherever such large quantities of burn morels are found, so too are temporary cash-based economies that deal in the culinary delights. Buyers set up along roadsides or in designated parking areas, eager to purchase what the pickers bring out of the forest. With morels selling from $10 to $13 per pound, it is said that even first-time pickers can make between $500 and $1,000 a day if conditions are right.
Morels normally begin appearing around mid-May in most places, depending on conditions such as moisture and soil temperature. Although morel sprouting may begin when the soil temperature reaches around 45 degrees, things really start hopping when it climbs to 55 degrees and above. A natural sign that many experienced mushroomers look for is the appearance of catkins on the aspen trees. Morels generally follow a week or two after the catkins appear.
In any event, as destructive to human activity as wildfires can be, they are nevertheless also a regenerative force in nature. And for some humans – those who are willing to take advantage of the potential for mushroom culinary bliss found on the heels of wildfire devastation – wildfires are a welcome event.
Wooley summarizes, “Burn it, and they will come.”
Images via Macleans