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  • Morel Lady

    Gold Hill's Donna Silva immerses herself in all things mushrooms
  • Gold Hill resident Donna Silva says she rarely runs into anyone who guesses her profession or says, "Hey, me, too!"
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    • Morel tips
      Mushroom buyer Donna Silva offers some tips and tricks for morel hunting.
      Note: It's called "hunting" instead of gathering, because they're not especially simple to find.
      Honeycomb-textured m...
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      Morel tips
      Mushroom buyer Donna Silva offers some tips and tricks for morel hunting.

      Note: It's called "hunting" instead of gathering, because they're not especially simple to find.

      Honeycomb-textured morel mushrooms come in a number of varieties, ranging in color from white to near-black, and fetch anywhere from less than $10 to almost $25 per pound.

      Mushroom-hunting amateurs are cautioned to obtain permission before hunting on private property. Forest Service and BLM lands are often good places to find mushrooms in small quantities. Pickers who intend to sell their harvest are required to buy a commercial permit.

      Mushrooms should be cut at ground level — rather than plucked or pulled — to ensure future harvest.

      Mushrooms should be picked in a bucket, rather than a bag, to preserve their condition, and never washed if the picker intends to sell them.

      While there's no rhyme or reason to what types of weather or altitude are most likely to spawn the coveted fungi, morels are most typically found near combinations of manzanita, oak, poison oak and madrone.
  • Gold Hill resident Donna Silva says she rarely runs into anyone who guesses her profession or says, "Hey, me, too!"
    She also never walks away without facing a slew of questions or stories about the best ways to find, pick or cook the coveted morel mushrooms that are so deeply entwined into her life story.
    A mushroom buyer for 27 years — and a fan and picker since she was old enough to eat solid foods and wield a bucket — Silva is as popular in her hometown during mushroom season as Santa Claus in mid-December.
    Whether by fate or by chance, Silva's family came to her gold-rush era hometown more than a century — and six generations — ago.
    The Silva family has long displayed a knack for living off the land, and Donna Silva says she can't remember family members ever passing up a chance to go mushroom picking during spring and early summer. So it seems only natural that she found a way to make her living as a mushroom buyer for the past three decades.
    Silva buys mushrooms for a wholesale company that ships worldwide to restaurants and specialty-produce shops. She spends eight to 12 hours a day sorting, grading and buying hedgehogs, yellow foot, black trumpets and porcinis. But this time of year, her life revolves around morels.
    "I go to the grocery store, and I'll hear kids whisper, 'Hey mommy, it's the mushroom lady.' You can go to pretty much any business in town and ask where the mushroom lady lives, and they just know," she says.
    "I really feel sorry if we ever sell our house."
    The Southern Oregon morel season runs from as early as February to mid-June. During that time, Silva will buy anywhere from 100 to 1,000 pounds of morels per day from local pickers.
    A longtime Gold Hill city councilwoman, Silva occasionally makes a frantic entrance at City Hall, sometimes within seconds of meeting start times, depending on weather patterns and mushroom harvests.
    Morels have even found their way into family stories about births and deaths. Her own venture into mushroom buying was delayed a year due to childbirth. And two decades later, her daughter delivered Silva's grandchild at the end of morel season.
    "The year my daughter had her baby, it would figure she would do it right at the end of mushroom season!" Silva says with a laugh.
    "She was having contractions, and I said, 'You gotta move this along!' "
    When her mother, Carole Purdy, passed away in 2005, mushrooms were part of the grieving process for Silva, her sisters and her aunt, Joan Voss of Central Point.
    "Our family had a mushroom patch that was very near and dear to my mother's heart. She loved that place, and I remember going there when I was small," Silva recalls.
    "Before she passed away, she said she wanted to be cremated and scattered in that mushroom patch. So that's what we did. Some people might think it's weird, but that's what she loved to do, and it's been such a part of our family."
    Almost three decades after she began grading mushrooms for a living, Silva's daughter, Lacey Silva, is now a buyer in Butte Falls and Ruch.
    "I've been around it my whole life. I can't remember not picking them or my mom (not) buying them," says the younger Silva.
    One of dozens of pickers who show up at Silva's house each day is Rogue River resident Tom Luben. Currently unemployed, he picks mushrooms to make ends meet and because he enjoys being outdoors with his 7- and 9-year-old children.
    Luben says Silva's front porch is a welcome and familiar place for the valley's mushroom pickers.
    "I had heard about Donna for years before I started picking. Everyone knows who she is," Luben says. "I'm unemployed, so I do this to make some money and because I love doing it. I'm still waiting for that moment when I see a morel and I don't go, 'Yeah!' But it ain't gonna happen!"
    Silva says watching her family continue the mushroom tradition — and seeing local families catch the mushroom bug — is fulfilling.
    "People are paying bills with this," she says. "But it's also a lot of fun. I always tell everybody when they're out doing this, 'It's something free that you pick up off the ground, so it's OK to sell some, but please do eat them and enjoy them! There really is something wonderful and magical about these mushrooms."
    Buffy Pollock is a freelance writer living in Medford. Email her at buffyp76@yahoo.com.
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