Morels not multiplying this spring

Late rains contributed to the shortage of the wild mushrooms.
Wednesday, April 28, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:46 a.m. CDT, Thursday, July 17, 2008

Don Snedeker is a collector of taste, obsessing over a delicacy of nature that usually appears for only three weeks each spring.

He’s been going after the brainy-looking fungi known as morels for more than three decades, and this year has been his worst — he had collected two dozen as of Tuesday. “The conditions just were not right,” Snedeker said.

Jeanne Mihail, MU professor of plant pathology, has spent the past four years conducting field trials and other research into morels.

She said this year has not been a good growing season for the wild mushrooms — the rain came too late, she said, and did not coincide with the warming of the soil.

As part of her research, Mihail maps every morel she finds in the wild to identify hot spots.

“The problem with this season, I haven’t found any to map,” she said. “This has been a crummy year, and a lot of people will be disappointed. I haven’t heard anyone bragging, which is unusual.”

Mihail cites three components that come together to make morels pop from the ground: soil temperature, sufficient moisture and a “biological stimulus.”

Fungi such as morels get their nutrition from decaying organic material, and the biological stimulus is usually associated with dead material or roots.

Prime locations for morels to appear is around dead elm and ash trees, but Mihail said she doesn’t know why.

“That is something I would like to know and something I intend to figure out,” she said.

The growing season for morels, from mid-April to mid-May, is also their reproductive season. The actual mushroom is the fruit responsible for spreading spores into nature to reproduce.

Mihail and Johann Bruhn, MU research associate professor of plant pathology, part of a project sponsored by the Agroforestry Center at MU. The project’s purposeis to discover new things people can do with their woodlands to increase property value and encourage planting more trees.

Together, Mihail and Bruhn are focusing on gourmet and medicinal mushrooms.

“The trick with the morel is there is little known about the biology,” Mihail said.

Warm temperatures forecast for today won’t help much to improve prospects, Mihail said.

With or without additional rain, she said that she thinks the window of opportunity for this spring has passed.

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