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SECRETIVE SHROOMS

A tale of morels

by C.W. Nicol

I have a Canadian friend, Nedd Kenney, a brilliant scholar, musician and fieldworker who now lives on Baffin Island off the northeast coast of Canada. It was Nedd who got me my first bhodran (Irish drum), and came to my house in Kurohime, in the Nagano Prefecture hills, to give me some tips on playing it. (In my case, with a lot of enthusiastic noise and gusto making up for a lack of talent.)

Nedd related a story about the gathering of mushrooms called morel (genus Morchella). Morels can sometimes grow as big as a pineapple, or they can be as small as the end of your thumb. They are shaped like a like a cross between a dwarf’s hat and a thimble, with a hollow, meshed, pitted cap intergrown with a stalk. They are prized delicacies in Europe and among the best-known wild mushrooms in North America. Their price on the market is second only to truffles.

Morels are one of the tastiest of all mushrooms, and Chinese and Japanese research teaches us that they have seven kinds of amino acids; that they are believed to inhibit tumors; act as a soothing tonic for digestive problems; and can assist in regulating the flow of what Chinese medicine calls “ki,” meaning “vital energy.”

The morel is a very elusive fungus, growing in northern latitudes from April to June, often after forest fires or other traumatic events in the woods. Morels are the tricksters of the mushroom world, they can suddenly pop up in the most unexpected places: beside garden sheds, in old barbecue fire-pits, on bulldozed forest roads or wherever. The reason for this seems to be that fire and other disturbance reduces competition and nutrient levels of carbon and nitrogen in the soil, which morels don’t like. Fire increases levels of calcium, potassium and other mineral salts, which suits morels just fine.

The spores of the morel germinate quickly in the right conditions, sending threads of the hyphae, or germination tubes, to spread underground at a rate of up to 10 cms a day. These fine threads form a net called the mycelium, which can rapidly colonize a huge underground area.

When conditions are right, their fruiting bodies (what we call mushrooms) pop up for a few days, then the underground web stops growing. Sometimes the mycelium will spread and then stop as it reaches competition from other fungi, or due to a lack of required nutrients. The mycelium then collapses to form little brown lumps like misshapen walnuts, called sclerotium, which store nutrients. These can dry out and survive in the soil for many years until the right conditions come around again for them to suck up water and send out hyphae to restart the cycle.

The year after a forest fire is a good time to start hunting morels. Such was these mushrooms’ appeal, that in years gone by laws were enacted in Europe to stop people from setting fire to their local woods in the hope of getting a crop of these tasty morsels.

But back to Nedd’s story.

The cataclysmic meltdown of the Chernobyl nuclear power station in Ukraine in April 1986 spread airborne toxic nuclear waste over vast areas of both the former Soviet Union and Europe. Mushrooms absorb and retain such poisons very readily, and after that event many European countries banned the sale and use of morels and other mushrooms. This left a huge hole in a very lucrative market.

Canada has lots of forest fires, which Nedd has mapped and researched. As often as not, the custodians of the land were First Nations tribes. Nedd is a very personable guy, so he would approach the elders and leaders and get permission to start harvesting, grading and marketing morels. Very quickly, Canadian morels became a multi-million-dollar commodity, with first the New York restaurant market gobbling them up, and then European chefs following suit. The rest of Nedd’s experiences and insights make an exciting story, which I leave to him to write — with lots of intrigue, local politics, and even the encroaching tentacles of the ever-opportunistic human underground (the Mafia), rather than mycelium.

According to Nedd, however, he didn’t make a fortune, but he was able to pay his way through college on the proceeds of morel harvesting. Even smoke clouds can have a silver lining!

Up here in Kurohime, our woodland trust acquired another small valley three years ago. The land had been neglected for 30 years, so the woods had turned to tangled, vine-strangled, sickly brush. We took a year to assess the valley and found that so many of the trees were dying, spindly, snapped and twisted that Mr. Matsuki, our forester, wanted to cut and clear 90 percent of them. This we did last year, with most of the extracted logs either going to be seeded for shiitake and winter mushrooms, or turned into charcoal. The trimmed-off branches were gathered and piled up to create habitat for lizards and beetles, and to provide escape cover for small birds. Eventually, these piles will rot and collapse and slowly return nutrients to the soil.

We found so much garbage dumped! We also cleared this and other debris from small streams in the valley, so the water could run more happily and fill the valley with chuckling laughter.

This spring, with the help of trust-member volunteers, we planted about 500 saplings. In the boggy parts at the bottom of the valley, facing onto a country road (which explains the dumped garbage), we planted fast-growing alders. On the slopes we planted mountain cherry, Japanese oaks, beech, katsura (cinnamon trees) and two kinds of magnolia. This spring the violets have already spread, together with wood anemones and little patches of squill, which look like skinny little ballet dancers in fluffy blueish-pink tutus. Along the streams, the golden marsh marigolds have established themselves, and I personally will plant some wild wasabi (Japanese horseradish) at the end of summer. Horsetails and coltsfoot galore!

From now on, each early summer, the violets will make glorious carpets in various hues of blue, purple and white until the trees grow and shade most of them out. As the woods get happy and biosterous, birds, squirrels, mice and wind will bring in more seeds, nuts and acorns. We also noted this spring that patches of fresh-green zazen “skunk cabbage” have been munched on by a bear. Bears consume this foul-tasting stuff to cure their long winter constipation (need I say more?). The deposited results will like as not give us some wild grape seeds. Ain’t nature wonderful!

The day before the volunteers came for the sapling planting, Mr. Ishii, our assistant forester, brought me a whole bag full of black morels that he and Mr. Matsuki had harvested from that same little valley. Even though we didn’t burn off anything, our activities had inspired the morels to pop up all over the place — and very welcome they were!

I dried the morels and will share them with a few appreciative friends, and when I personally enjoy them I’ll not forget to raise a toast to good friends like Nedd. Wish you were here lad!

And there’s the morel of the story.