APRIL FOOLS STORY:
These “Kings of the Forest” once stood tall among our timber.
The earliest known written reference to the giant Morels in West Virginia was made in 1823 by an expedition of game hunters. This was written in the diary of the explorer C. I. Foundem; the reference does not mention any locality, but his planned route would have taken him through what is now Doddridge and Ritchie Counties. This discovery was not publicized. In 1850, surveyor, William Thomas Flannagan claimed that he had carved his initials in the trunk of a mushroom along the South Fork of the Hughes River, but again, this received no publicity.
The first certain and widely documented sighting of a giant Morel took place in the spring of 1852. A hunter who was tracking a bear in the Appalachian mountains, entered the woods, an area now known as ‘Oxford’ in Doddridge County. The famed tracker, Oscar M. Goodfried, could not believe his eyes. Once he arrived at a nearby logging camp, no one would believe him before seeing the enormous mushrooms themselves. The gigantic mushrooms gained instant popularity and became well known by the general public. Roads were constructed into these remote locations and a lot of harvesters got dollar signs in their eyes.
In the following years, more and larger giant morel groves were discovered, although it needs to be said that these forest were known for centuries by the local Indian tribes. They called the mushrooms Mee-Oow-Wa, an onomatopoeia that imitates the sound of the Northern Bobcat, which was believed by the Chunkee Indians to be the guardian of the forest. The tribes who lived along the Hughes River called the mushroom Moo-rell-chuk-saw. Local tribes knew of the light, delicious flavor of the giant fungi. Many would carve out a small piece from the cap area to serve with venison, rabbit and other meats. Often lightly breaded in corn flour and fried in deer butter, these meals were truly a treat in early spring.
After withstanding storms and forest fires for many centuries, in 1902 a giant morel encountered a team of loggers who knew they could fell the mushroom and rush it to market in several cities on the newly established railroads. Without proper refrigeration, the giant morel wilted and dried out before it could get to market.
It took five men about twenty two days to chop the largest mushroom down. After counting the rings it appeared that this mushroom was 300 years old. The remaining stump was used as a dance floor until it too rotted away.
It tells us a lot about the mentality of the time. The felling of the largest giant morels sounds like a sad and disrespectful waste, but is understandable in the zeitgeist of the Industrial Age.
Almost everywhere in the remote mountain valleys of West Virginia, small and large culinary mills and farms sprouted up along the railroads. While the first were felling numerous old growth morels that were many centuries old, the latter brought the harvesting of smaller mushrooms.
The giant morels yield was minimal: because of the lack of refrigeration. Most of the huge fungi was wasted in transit. Several were left on the side of the railways when the mushroom would become to soft and slippery to stay chained onto the flatbed cars.
In many of these places you can barely see these harvested remains after more than 100 years: due to its high demand early on and successive yields, recent satellite searches and analysis conducted by West Virginia University have shown that none of the giant Morels have survived to date. Dr. Reginald Morchella stated “We had some idea that the devastation of the last harvests in 1920’s had pretty well wiped out any morel that stood over four feet high. This is why we search, to find answers to these culinary questions.”
With all of the giant morels gone, it is still possible to hunt these delightful wild treats in several areas of the county today. Although most never reach more than a few inches in height, some mycologists believe it is a survival mechanism that the mushrooms have adopted. The massive underground root systems are believed to harbor the small morel mushrooms we know today.
Typically they are found in moist areas, around dying or dead Elm trees, Sycamore and Ash trees, old apple orchards and maybe even in your own back yard. Ground cover varies and it is very likely that each patch of mushrooms you come across may be growing in totally different conditions. It is a common practice of mushroom hunters to hit their favorite spots year after year.
Photos courtesy of the Doddridge County Hysterical Society.