Morel mushrooms are one of Iowa's spring delicacies, but they can be very hard to find. Mark Gleason, Professor in the Department of Plant Pathology and Microbiology at Iowa State University says if you want to be successful go mushroom hunting with an experienced forager. Gleason says you can often find morels in the vicinity of dead and decaying elm trees.
"Morels have a fairly distinctive look to them. The cap of the mushroom almost looks like the surface of a kitchen sponge," says Gleason. But, with at least 5 species of morels in Iowa, their appearance can fit a range of sizes and colors, so you should use some caution. "Morels are always good to eat, but there are some look-alikes that are riskier to eat," says Gleason.
If you plan to profit from a successful hunt you need to be aware of some provisions in the Iowa Code. Gleason says in order to sell morels legally in Iowa, whether to a store, at a farmer's market, or privately you must be certified. The mechanism for getting certified is by taking a class offered by ISU. Certification lasts for three years.
Gleason says there are other varieties of mushrooms common in Iowa in the spring, but some of those have real risks associated with them. "A number of genera have bio-chemicals that are very similar to rocket fuel when metabolized, and your body is not really very adapted to rocket fuel." Gleason says eating these mushrooms can produce symptoms similar to food poisoning, but can also include liver failure, convulsions and death. "There are mushrooms that are quite toxic out there, but the individual tolerance to those mushrooms vary, and some people can eat them and tolerate them and others can't."
Gleason says he would recommend the Prairie States Mushroom Club, or another reputable online source for more information.
In this edition of Talk of Iowa, host Charity Nebbe talks with Gleason and ISU Extension Horticulturist Richard Jauron, and answers listener questions about plants, trees and fungi.