Officials brace for mushroom boom in areas impacted by wildfires

Posted: Friday, April 08, 2005

ANCHORAGE — Alaska has a history of booms — fur, gold, oil. This summer could see another — a 'shroom boom.

Morel mushrooms, treasured for French cooking, thrive on land a year after it's disturbed by forest fires. Alaska set records in scorched earth last year.

More than 6.5 million acres burned, mostly in Alaska's Interior, the vast middle swath between the Brooks Range in the north and the Alaska Range in the south. With the right moisture and temperatures, Alaska could witness a morel gold rush in late spring.

''That is what we're hoping on,'' said Jay Moore of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service. ''It really depends on environmental factors.''

The extension service is putting on workshops in rural communities, showing how to pick, dry and market morels, which when dried can command prices of hundreds of dollars per pound. The service hopes to create a cottage industry in cash-poor places where people last year were smothered with smoke and soot.

It's part of a ''mushroom task force'' that includes state and federal land managers readying permit systems and informational campaigns. The agencies already are taking calls from commercial harvesters, wondering where to pick.

Where to pick is one of the mysteries of the fabulous fungi, said Trish Wurtz, a U.S. Forest Service research ecologist and affiliate research professor at UA Fairbanks. Wurtz has studied morels for three years and is fascinated by their enigmatic ways.

''You can go to a study site repeatedly and it's not there,'' she said of the morel. ''And you go the next time, and it's there. And you go back, and it's not there.''

Gary Laursen, professor of mycology at UAF's Institute of Arctic Biology, said morel hunters should stay away from boggy areas and search where wildfires were hottest, such as hillsides. Morels appear on soil, not the decaying vegetable matter on the ground in a forest.

''If the fire was hot enough to burn away the duff, then overlay all that soil with ash, then you're going to get a prolific fruiting of what are called the ascomes, the fruit body,'' Laursen said.

Just identifying morels is confusing. Scientists speculate that five or six species occur in Interior Alaska. They vary in appearance depending on where they grow.

Scientists can merely speculate on their life cycles but know they can show up after fire, timber harvest or insect infestation of trees.

Hundreds of species of fungi are in Alaska's soil, many that have yet to be described, Wurtz said.

The Cooperative Extension Service has conducted workshops in Fort Yukon and Tok and had plans for other Interior towns.

''We're trying to target the rural communities that were near large pockets of fire,'' Moore said.

Morels must be protected from bruising and kept out of hot sun. Excessive moisture from rain or washing hastens decomposition. Morels are collected in baskets or buckets with holes, not plastic bags, to prevent molding.

Moore's workshops encourage people to be good stewards of the land and make sure they obtain permission and permits before picking. With an eye to liability, he will not be giving detailed instruction on what to pick.

''We really are not keying on identifying mushrooms,'' he said. ''That's up to the picker.''

Laursen said people are right to show caution. People can get sick from eating false morels. Some people even get sick from eating the real thing.

''Unfortunately because of individual body chemistry, not all people can eat this mushroom,'' he said.

For people who have never eaten morels, he recommends eating only a small portion the first and second days. Sometimes ill effects are cumulative, or brought out by drinking wine with a mushroom.

A mistake during morel season might make someone sick but is unlikely to kill, Wurtz said.

Most of Alaska's poisonous mushrooms fruit in the fall, not in late May and June when the morels are out, she said. Americans have a hypersensitivity to mushroom poisoning that's almost unique in the world, she said.

Mycologists have a saying: ''Europeans pick them, Americans kick them.''

Alaska has the potential for a bumper crop, but dry, hot weather could negate other favorable conditions, Wurtz said.

A bountiful harvest also depends on price. Morels reach the market from China, Russia, India and eastern European nations. Most commercial morel harvesting in North America occurs in western states and Canada.

Alaska could be attractive to pickers this year. As of early September, only 1.3 million acres in the Lower 48 state had burned, about one-third the average.

But 4.3 million acres burned in the Yukon Territory. Pickers could stop there instead of driving all the way to Alaska, Moore said.

The best way to distinguish between morels and false morels is to have years of experience. But for guidelines, the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service refers to recommendations by Michael Kuo, a faculty member at Eastern Illinois University and author of the Web site and mushroom books.

Among his suggestions:

1. When in doubt, throw it out!

If pickers are not 100 percent sure a mushroom is a morel, they're advised to not eat it.

2. If it ain't hollow, don't swallow!

Morels are hollow. A sliced false morel has mushroom flesh. Sometimes the flesh of a false morel is interspersed with air pockets, creating a ''chambered'' effect, but there is flesh present. Consequently, false morels weigh more than morels.

3. If it's wavy, don't make it gravy!

Caps of false morels are often wavy, rather than pitted. The pits on morels are not, on close inspection, symmetrical, but they are very regular when compared with the lobed, wavy, brain-like structure of the false morel cap.

4. If it's reddish, you could be dead-ish!

False morels frequently, though not always, have reddish brown shades. Some yellow morels also develop red stains, when growing under pine or when the morel is old. Kuo says the stain usually begins as a stripe on the stem and then grows.

The rule might eliminate some good-eating morels, Kuo said, but it is more likely to eliminate false morels.

He recommends not relying on this rule — or any of the rules — by itself.

— The Associated Press

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