When four-wheel drive failed to carry him over snowdrifts to favorite morel patches, John Teem knew last weekend's mushroom hunting was a bust.
So all the morel specimens Teem brought to Sunday's Spring Mushroom Fair at Northwest Nature Shop in Ashland were plucked from lower elevations. With snow still covering much of the prime picking grounds, it's anyone's guess, experts say, how successful this year's morel season will be.
"Usually when the winter is wet, then cold, then dry, then cold into May, a good morel season usually doesn't occur," says Gordon Larum, a longtime member of the now-defunct Mount Mazama Mycological Society.
"A good snowpack at least provides moisture and favorable conditions," Larum says.
"Sometimes when the snow retreats, they're there; sometimes they're not," he says, adding that he's picked morels in previous years alongside snowbanks.
This year's spring is the slowest start to morel season that mushroom buyer Donna Silva says she can remember.
Typically, elevations around 4,000 to 5,000 feet would by now be sprouting morels, Southern Oregon's choicest edible mushroom until fall species become available.
"I can't remember it this late," says Silva, a life-long Gold Hill resident and forager. "It's definitely taking longer for the higher elevations to start producing."
Morel prices, however, aren't the highest she's seen, Silva says. Running at about $17 to $19 per pound, the distinctive, honeycombed mushrooms aren't yet in short supply. But a few weeks of scarcity may be on the horizon once the lower elevations are picked out and higher grounds haven't borne fruit, says forager Louis Jeandin.
"Whatever is here is getting scarcer and scarcer," he says, referring to patches in lower elevations.
Avid mushroomers, Jeandin says, look for morels to start popping up with the start of fishing season in the mountain lakes. Areas around Howard Prairie and Hyatt lakes have been reliable just about every year since she moved to Ashland about 30 years ago, Lynne Ledbetter says. She typically picks morels there between the first of May and the middle of June. But the only morel she's found so far this year was in a driveway off Tolman Creek Road.
"You get some rain and some warm weather, and it can turn around," Ledbetter says.
Whether high-elevation morels will come late or not at all this year is a matter mycologists debate, says Teem, who grows oyster and lion's mane mushrooms on a Talent farm.
"They're one of the more mysterious mushroom species out there," Teem says, adding that experts can't agree on morels' inner workings. It isn't entirely clear, he says, whether morels digest decaying material, have a symbiotic relationship with root systems or spring from tree bark. Teem has experimented with growing morels in his laboratory but hasn't figured out a way to make them commercially viable.
Until then, local buyers like Silva amass the fungus and ship them off to wholesalers who distribute myriad wild mushroom species to restaurants and specialty-produce shops. Silva cautions people hoping to cash in on morels to obtain a permit from the appropriate land-use agency. Cut the mushrooms off at ground level; don't pull them up. And don't wash them if you plan on selling them.
Some people, however, don't need to venture very far afield. Several visitors to Sunday's mushroom fair swapped tales of finding morels in freshly delivered bark mulch, even in the landscaping at apartment complexes. Others bragged of picking several pounds in a local cemetery. Jeff Behrends of Ashland scavenged his neighbor's yard.
"I've been seeing morels everywhere," Behrends says, adding that for beginning foragers like him morels are the easiest mushroom to identify.
Above all, if you're not sure about a mushroom's identity, don't eat it, Teem says, adding that he received three calls between October and January from Oregon Poison Center soliciting his help in identifying mushrooms that had sickened people in Southern Oregon. Poisonings are more common in fall when the majority of mushroom species, including the state's most deadly, come out, Teem says.
Reach reporter Sarah Lemon at 776-4487, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.