PEKIN — Morel mushrooms are currently priced at $299.99 for an eight-ounce package at Walmart. But a seasoned morel hunter can often save that purchase price through an idyllic spring walk in a Tazewell County forest.
It is difficult to find a more seasoned morel hunter than Marsha Williams of San Jose. Friends have referred to her as “A morel maniac,” and “The Queen of the Morel Hunters.” Williams, who has been hunting and finding mushrooms for nearly 60 years, represents the third of five generations of morel hunters in her family.
“My grandmother (Bessie Donnell) died at the age of 103,” said Williams. “She would go hunting with us, not down hills, just on flat surfaces, well into her 90s.”
Williams participated in her first mushroom hunt when she was 8 or 9 years old under the supervision of her mother, Gerry Smith. Williams has since passed on what appears to be a genetic enthusiasm for morels to her son, Ken Zimmerman, and her grandson, Hayden Williams.
The season for morel mushrooms is a short one, according to Williams, typically beginning in mid-April and ending in mid-May. Winter weather that lingered into April may have given the season a late start in central Illinois, but Williams has already had a productive hunt in southern Illinois on the weekend of April 19-21.
“I was somewhere near Carbondale with my aunt and my cousin,” Williams said. “We found all kinds (of morel mushrooms) down there, little ones to big ones, gray to white.”
Early in the season, Williams added, morels are difficult to spot.
“They’re usually gray and very small,” she said. “They usually don’t get bigger than 3, maybe 4 inches. Pay attention to variances in color, whether it’s a pine cone or light and dark. Sometimes those holes in a morel will camouflage them.”
Stacey Jones of Sparland had never seen a morel mushroom until she moved to Illinois from Arizona about 30 years ago.
“I moved here with my husband, (Jeff),” she said. “We lived by Danville, and we were down by the Vermillion River. He was talking about the mushrooms and what they looked like and stuff. It was in March and actually on my birthday. I found this big mushroom and said ‘Oh, is that what you’re talking about?’ He looked and said, ‘Yeah!’ I said, ‘We’ve got to find some more!’ I’ve been addicted since then.”
Jones said one of the main factors in her passion for morels is the thrill of the hunt. She enjoys the challenge of trying to discern a morel’s distinctive honeycomb pattern through a camouflage of brush or leaf litter. However, she is also fully conscious of the mushroom’s delicate, earthy flavor.
“I would love to eat them every single day,” she said. “I would eat tacos and morels every day for the rest of my life if I could.”
According to an April 3 article for Outdoor Life magazine by Greg Garth and Matt Every, temperature and moisture are by far the most important factors for morel growth. The mushrooms will not grow in soil that is too warm or too cold. Because they favor moist soil, snowy winters and rainy springs create ideal growing conditions.
A piece of morel lore that Jones has picked up is that morels await the sharp-eyed forager in the woods when lilac bushes are in bloom.
“Even though I’ve been hunting them for quite some time, I still feel like a beginner,” she said. “Another good thing to look for is dead trees with the bark falling off.”
Garth and Every wrote that being able to identify trees is an important skill for a morel hunter to learn. Sycamore, ash, hickory and elm trees are likely places to start looking. The mushrooms also seem to favor the proximity of fruit trees, so orchards are always worth searching.
“Oftentimes, they’re along small creek edges,” said Williams. “Sometimes, they’re in apple orchards or under pine trees, under bushes like blackberry bushes or scrub brush bushes. Sometimes, you’ll find them around dead elms. Sometimes, you’ll find them around old, dried-up cardboard. I know they’re all over the place, but around here, sometimes, you’ll find them around railroad tracks where there’s wooded areas on both sides.”
Williams assured local morel enthusiasts that Tazewell County has good foraging spots within 30 to 40 miles of Pekin. However, morel hunters guard their spots as zealously as U.S. Marines guard their assigned embassies, and Williams is no exception.
“I don’t want to see people out there with baskets picking them,” she said with a laugh.
The rewards of finding and eating morels are considerable for the true enthusiast. But chances of rewards often carry risk factors, and morel-hunting has its share of hazards, according to Williams. The danger of encountering a snake, coming into contact with a poison ivy bush, or becoming host to a Lymes fever-bearing tick far outweigh the risk of mistaking a deadly false morel for the genuine, eminently edible article.
“People worry about false morels, but if they look at pictures, (false morels) are a deep red and look more like a brain than a morel,” she said.
While Jones is as adamantly secretive about the location of her favorite patches of Illinois forest, she is far from adverse to the idea of squads of hunters searching through leaves and brush every spring.
“I think everybody should (hunt morels),” she said. “I don’t know why you wouldn’t want to. Get out in the woods, get out in nature and hike around. It’s good exercise. If you don’t want to be with people, you can be by yourself to just reflect on your own life.”
Williams encouraged area residents who have not tried hunting morels to take up the hobby by ultimately appealing to the inner child lurking in the psyche of most adults.
“It’s like an Easter egg hunt for adults,” she said.