May 25, 2011

Springtime in Appalachia with Morel Mushrooms, Part 1: Foraging. ~ Jenny Roth

Clouds drifted through the azure spring sky like huge, dark gray flat bottom boats with billowy white sails.

The breeze carried the fragrance of distant blooming lilac and honey locust blossoms upon its invisible wings as we sauntered the forest floor. Otto was a tall and lean man in stature, dark complexion, shoulder length jet black hair and penetrating dark eyes.

We had a good discourse from the beginning and there are vivid memories of him etched into my mind enough for many lifetimes. He was like a vagabond ghost traveling by wind and showing himself every now and then. Otto wasn’t a Buddhist or a Hindu any sooner than he was a Catholic or a Muslim. He just was. He existed as if in a dream. I could feel his presence and hear his words even when we were far part. A natural teacher, he was calm and disciplined, incredibly intelligent, slow to speak, fast to think—but best of all, he was a simple man with a simple life and he was happy.

One late afternoon Otto guided me across a southern ridge where tulip poplar & sycamore trees were abundant. The mayapple patches stood like little villages along the hillsides as we walked and took refuge in the misty rays of warm sunlight streaming through the branches of the old oaks that lined the path. He sang a song in the Cherokee language about a young village warrior who was in love with the Chief’s daughter with next to little hope he would ever prevail in the situation… or so he said. He could have been singing about wolves howling at the moon for all I cared. It was his resonant voice and his rich, complex skill in language and communication that intrigued and held my attention.

Twenty years my senior, Otto is one of the best teachers I have ever encountered because of his intense connection with the earth and his immense wisdom stemming from surviving with no technological connections to the outside world, with the exception of a small stereo, and minimal reliance on others for food, shelter or clothing or interaction for that matter. I am lucky to know Otto Tavares and I hope the wind carries him to my doorstep soon.

On this particular day, while hiking to a small waterfall deep in the woods, Otto abruptly stopped singing and said we should listen to the wind that it would tell us where to go and in silence he asked the four directions to guide him to the source of his persuance. As if following a treasure map drawn out and provided by the deities residing within the wind, he walked towards two butterflies playfully circling each other in delight then west for a bit and then he knelt down and beckoned me with a taunt of his finger and a gaze of his captivating dark eyes.

As I approached, he told me to walk light so not to disturb the woodland spirits. I sat beside him curious of the delights he was entertaining. He told me to observe the forest floor within a particular area and to hold my focus just above the ground. It took me some time to see the light brown, honeycomb patterned mushroom cap protruding from the matted leaves. Once I saw a few, they magically appeared all around, in great abundance. It was as if once my eyes saw one, all of the others came into being. They were delightful little fungi, dark brown caps with black veins on some while others were light brown all with a creamy white stems.

Morel mushrooms can be found in deciduous and coniferous forests from the Pacific Northwest to the deep South with few exceptions as to where they won’t grow.

There are places that sell morel growing kits but as far as I know, none of them work. You have to hunt morels the old-fashioned way: by foot or buy them commercially which is very expensive given that they have to harvest them the old-fashioned way as well. Fresh morels are, as they should be, a rarity at the dinner table which makes them all the more special and magical! The old timers say these mushrooms have massive underground spore systems that can cover large areas of land and if you find one patch, chances are there will be another nearby. They prefer cool weather and are in abundance after a good spring rain when the sun comes out.

It is best to start out by eating a small amount to make sure you don’t have a negative reaction to them. To date, I know of no one who has experienced any adverse reaction. Morels have a firmer consistency than other mushrooms and a deep, complex, earthy flavor, similar to a snow mushroom. If you like mushrooms, you will love morels – their distinct texture and flavor is prized by cooks and chefs from around the globe.

When gathering mushrooms of any kind, it is important to know exactly what you are looking for. There are mushrooms in the forest that can kill you by injesting just a small amount. Distinguishing a true morel from the poisonous false morels (including Gyromitra esculenta, Verpa bohemica, and others) is easy. The easiest way to tell the false morel from the true variety, is to simply look inside the stem. False morels contain a thick cotton looking substance inside their stem while true morels are hollow inside.

A few huge, decayed American Chestnut stumps remained on the old logging road en route to the falls and we always harvested baskets full from this area. The tulip poplars were blooming their peridot, sun stained crowns to the west while the honey locust, dripping with ghastly blossoms, danced in the south by the river’s edge. As the soft white petals of the dogwoods met their beauties end, floating to the ground to see another season pass, I knew I was experiencing something magical.

Our mushroom hunting expeditions rewarded us with hundreds of these strange new edible masterpieces of which were heavenly to the senses. We spent many spring afternoons transplanting woodland herbs & flowers, hunting mushrooms, dehydrating and freezing morels, making herbal tinctures, making tea on the old wood cookstove, co-existing in silence much of the time, “as to not spoil the intonation of the water or the crows, or the wind carrying messages through the trees to the sky.” As he said, “It is almost always best to be still and listen.”


Jenny Roth took Agriculture/Horticulture as a young lady and decided to take a non-traditional path of learning, seeking out teachers without formal educations in the areas of foraging, organic gardening, soapmaking, cooking, herbal medicine, and other traditional ways. Paying attention to everyone, especially elders, woodsmen, hippies, country dwellers, mountain folks, gardeners, this path in life has connected her to wonderful people of all types. She and her husband are students of the honorable Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche and Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal Rinpoche of Padma Samye Ling Monastery in upstate New York and the main caretakers of Padma Gochen Ling Buddhist retreat center and temple in the foothills of Tennessee.

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