Monday, April 7, 2008
Black Morels (probably)
It's time to play everyone's favorite game: "Turds? or Mushrooms?"
If you answered Turds!, that would be incorrect. These are mushrooms. "Mushrooms?! In southern California?!"... "But," you object, "I thought southern California was part of the Desert Southwest!"
Well, it is. But first of all, I don't even know if deserts are actually barren of mushrooms (let's check... Here: this guy from Tucson says there are a few).
And secondly, Orange County is on the coastal slope of southern California. We've even got the Santa Ana Mountains (Peninsular Range) to our east that helps keep in the moisture and humidity. I'm not saying it's a rainforest here--recall the wildfires?--but Orange County averages 13 inches per year . That's 3 inches too high to be considered "desert". In fact, as fantastically varied as Orange County's habitats are--coastal sage scrub, riparian woodland, chaparral, montane coniferous woodland, tidepools, estuaries, urban, suburban, grassland savannah, etc.--it is one of our great local-geographical ironies that desert is the one habitat Orange County does not have. (For that, you have to step across the Orange/Riverside County line.).
So it's actually not out of the ordinary to find mushrooms growing in southern California, assuming you're looking during the moistest season of the year, which is now.
I have a special place in my heart for mushrooms. It's said that in ancient and medieval times, mushrooms were widely regarded as magical, the province of fairies and gnomes. I'm sympathetic to that. There is something almost magical about them. I'm not the first to be intrigued by their short-lived nature, the fact that they pop up literally overnight and are gone again in days without a visible trace. They are sometimes quite colorful, and sometimes odorous. Some of the very ones you encounter would spell instant death if eaten, while others are delicious, and yes, still others cause severe hallucinations. Paradoxically, evolutionary biologists (and mycologists--people who study fungi) tell us that mushrooms are probably more closely related to animals than to plants. And I feel like there are other reasons I'm really intrigued by mushrooms, but I'm finished soul-searching for now.
Mushrooms are extremely difficult to identify to species--more so than plants and animals. Not only do you have to learn the basics of mushroom anatomy (which consists of noting the gill attachment, cup shape, veil type, color, cap shape, etc.), but to be certain, you nearly always have to make a spore print. It's totally my kind of geeky fun, but even then, my attempts at identification usually fail, because I never have the passion to follow through with use of my microscope and identify the spore shape. (You just wait.) I have a sister, who's both a chef and someone interested in nature, and every few months we get to talking about it and she mentions that she's thinking of going mushroom-hunting. And given the number of innocuous-looking but deadly, or just plain poisonous-enough-to-make-you-really-sick mushrooms I always have to caution her against it.
All mushrooms are exciting to me, but morels especially so. For starters, they don't look like your typical, Beatrix Potter-style 'shroom. The inner Butthead in me wants to laugh at them. "Huh huh huh huh. Look Beavis, morels look like turds."
More seriously, morels are a delicacy, and are therefore one of the most sought after family of mushrooms in the world, after truffels. They can fetch as much as $30 per pound . I've yet to eat one, but my adorable, rural-Missourian wife attests to their deliciousness, she says especially when they're battered in egg and breadcrumb. (But we ask, suspiciously, what isn't delicious when battered in egg and breadcrumb?).
Following my field guide to mushrooms, the club-shaped mushroom here is most likely a variety of Black Morel, which is edible... but I wouldn't eat it. There's too strong a possibility that this is a dark variant of a different species known commonly as the False Morel. And on that, I shall quote for you the relevant passage, from The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms: "Scientists have discovered that the Conifer False Morel develops a compound similar to the one used in the manufacture of rocket fuel. It causes acute illness and has been fatal in a few instances; it also produces tumors in laboratory animals."
You get the point.