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On a warm May afternoon about ten years ago, Kirk Smith was preparing for a photo shoot near Georgetown’s Dumbarton House. As he lined up vintage Victorian costumes on a retaining wall next to the estate’s service entrance, he happened to glance under a stand of pine trees behind the wall. It was late in the season and an atypical habitat, but Smith noticed more than a half-dozen perfectly formed, choice black morels poking up from the mat of fallen pine needles. He exclaimed with such excitement that he spooked his model.

At the P Street Whole Foods, a pound of fresh morels from Pennsylvania goes for $44.99. They’re dark, the largest is about 2 inches from tip to toe, and many bear traces of mold. Except for their wrinkles, they have little resemblance to the photographs in field guides. Whole Foods also offers packages of dried “Pointed Morel Mushrooms,” priced at $109.99 per pound.

Next to truffles, morels are perhaps the most desired type of fungus for mushroom lovers. “It’s probably their rarity—they’re only available for a couple weeks,” says Terri Cutrino, head chef of Jaleo in the District. “And their flavor, obviously. They’re very earthy and very mushroomy, and steaky so you can really get your teeth in them. They don’t taste like water, like a lot of mushrooms do.”

And they’re free, so long as you know where to look. Every spring, Washington area mycophiles scour local woods, including Rock Creek Park, to hunt for morels, which usually grow for just a few weeks in April and May. Successful morel hunters have the same breadth of knowledge as trophy fishermen, who study everything about their prey’s habitat, behavior, diet, and responses to tides and climate changes. Just as valuable as knowing what a morel looks like is being acquainted with the trees they grow under. Morels are thought to form associations with tulip poplars, ashes, and elms; dying elms seem to be especially productive. Soil moisture, temperature, and acidity are also important—morels tend to start fruiting in damp earth once it reaches about 53 degrees Fahrenheit. Topographically, they gravitate to areas where moisture accumulates. The bottoms of hills, small ravines, and river floodplains are all good places.

In early April, Smith—a trial lawyer by trade, the former president of the Mycological Association of Washington (MAW), and a self-described “fun guy who likes to collect fungi”—heads out to a section of Rock Creek Park just over the Maryland border to see if morel season has begun. “Be on the lookout for Styrofoamus giganticus—coffee cups,” Smith says as he surveys the trees. “That’s what happens when your eyes go. You see bits of Styrofoam or litter and you get excited.”

As seems common among morel hunters, Smith is an unapologetic, lifelong gourmand. He grew up in gold-rush country in Placerville, Calif., and remembers watching his Irish grandmother cut basil from the garden for tomato sandwiches and an Italian neighbor dropping off porcini mushrooms. He credits his grandmother, an adventurous cook fond of sweetbreads and abalone steaks, for passing her passion for food on to him. Smith went on his first mushroom foray when he was 8, with his father and grandmother. That night for supper, Smith’s father filled a giant cast-iron frying pan with hundreds of field mushrooms and butter, cooked up the mess, ate the whole thing himself, and promptly got violently ill. “You know what the cause was?” says Smith. “Gluttony. He probably put a pound of butter in there.”

Smith first tasted morels about 20 years ago, sautéed in butter with finely chopped onions and served over toast. He took a mushrooming class at about the same time, and ever since, he’s suffered from what he calls “Red Volvo Syndrome.” “If you ever buy a red Volvo, all you ever notice afterwards are red Volvos,” he explains. “It’s like that with mushrooms. Once you take a mushrooming course, they’re all you see.”

Smith has found black chanterelles while at a party at the Indonesian embassy, seen honey mushrooms near the Washington Monument, and spotted oyster mushrooms while driving the George Washington Parkway. He pulled over and took them, of course. Once, Smith and his date were exchanging “tender embraces” behind an art gallery when, over her shoulder, he spied about two shopping bags’ worth of honey mushrooms and had to fight the urge to throw his date aside. “I was like, Wow! and not just from the tender embrace, either,” he says. “We ate them that night with some linguini, grated Parmesan reggiano, a nice bottle of wine, and the date went on.”

In Rock Creek Park, Smith crosses a small bridge over a creek and starts looking for tulip poplars, identifying them by their shape and bark, as the leaves haven’t yet appeared. Suddenly, he bends over, snaps off one of the small yellow flowers that cover the ground, and eats it. “I don’t know what this is, but I’ll take the chance,” he says.

A few steps away is a tuft of field garlic. He twists off a handful and chomps on it. When he happens upon some wild violets, Smith pops a couple in his mouth. “For a tailgate, you get a wicker basket, line it with fern fronds, pile some strawberries in there, and sprinkle some violets over it,” he says. “People will think you got it catered.”

After a couple of hours, all Smith has to show for his efforts are some turkeytail polypores—stiff, fan-shaped mushrooms growing on logs (“Tastes like paper,” he says after sampling a few)—some old puffballs, which look like a clutch of dirty quail’s eggs with their tops broken off, and, oddly enough, an old coconut. “Just a little too early for morels,” says Smith. “We need rain.”

That night, a group of about 30 hardcore mushroom lovers gathers in the basement of the Chevy Chase Library for MAW’s monthly meeting. Twice a year, MAW conducts mushroom tastings. Originally, they were for the members to see what all the different types taste like, but they have since evolved into competitive Iron Chef–type events, complete with mushroom desserts. Someone once took a giant puffball, cut it into strips, dipped it in beaten egg and cream, dredged it in flour, fried it up in butter, dusted it with powdered sugar and almonds, and drizzled it with some liqueur. Smith says it tasted like a firm angel-food cake. Another time, Smith sampled a white-truffle mousse that was “absolutely orgasmic.”

Walt Sturgeon, a rotund, white-bearded amateur mycologist from Ohio with more than 45 years of successful morel hunting under his belt, asks the members how they’ve done with morels. One man responds that in eight years, he’s found eight. Many other members have never found a single morel.

Sturgeon launches into a slideshow of morels, lecturing on their ecology. Near the end of the show, Sturgeon puts up a slide of one site where he found 95 morels. “How many do you see?” he asks.

Most of the members can only pick out about a dozen.

“This is what you’re dealing with,” says Sturgeon. “And these were big morels.”

The trick to picking out the morel is training your eye. “Get on the Web and just look at as many pictures of morels as you can,” says Mitch Fournet, a cheerful USDA biologist. “And when you do find a real one, mark it, turn around, and approach it from different angles to practice.” By the end of each morel season, Fournet says, his eyes are so sharp that he can walk full-speed through the woods and find morels by their shadows.

Gordon Callahan, a longtime MAW member, says he knew a woman who stuck dried morels on the ends of two pencils that she kept on her desk so that her visual memory wouldn’t wane during the off-season. And civil engineer Bruce Boyer keeps a morel charm on the chain of his reading lamp. “But it doesn’t help,” he says. “All I end up looking for is that morel.”

“There’s no rhyme or reason when it comes to morels,” adds Callahan. “Well, if you’ve got the right air temperature, the right trees, the right soil temperature, the right moisture, you’ll find them. Or you won’t. But if you’re in the wrong habitat, you definitely won’t find them.”

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For such a choice mushroom, morels are poorly understood, in part because they are one of the last edible mushrooms that remain truly wild. Even truffles have been successfully cultivated on a medium scale. Ron Ower came up with a process for growing morels in 1982 while a graduate student at San Francisco State University, and in 1986, he applied for a patent in cooperation with Neogen Corp., a Michigan State University affiliate with interests in the food, agriculture, pharmacologic and environmental industries. A few weeks before the patent was awarded, Ower was murdered. Neogen eventually sold the patent to Domino’s Pizza, which hoped to offer morels as a pizza topping. But Domino’s couldn’t successfully grow the mushrooms, and the patent wound up with another company, which did manage to produce morels, though they were reported to be very small and poor-tasting. “All the fungi have this mycelium [the vegetative part of the morel, as opposed to the fruit] that grows in soil or substrate,” says David Farr, a USDA mycologist. “And that, given moisture and nutrients, is pretty predictable. Where they actually fruit is dependent on a number of environmental variables, some of which we’re probably not aware of.”

Their quirkiness also makes taxonomy a nightmare. In North America alone, morel species include Morchella esculenta, vulargis, crassipes, conica, elata, semilibra, and the aptly named deliciosa. Some believe that all the different species are actually just three or four in different states of maturity and refer to them simply by color—whites, grays, yellows, and blacks, which are classified as Morchella elata, augusticeps, or conica, depending on whom you talk to. Sturgeon’s father called morels “dogpeckers,” as did many country boys back in Ohio. Elsewhere, morels are known as merkles, land fish, molly moochers, sponges, orchard mushrooms, elm mushrooms, or haystack mushrooms. M. crassipes is a jumbo golden variety known as the Bigfoot morel; Smith calls them “blondes,” and Fournet calls them “stuffers” because he likes to fill their cavities with a mixture of cream, lump crab meat, and green onions before browning them in a sauté pan and then finishing them in the oven.

There are almost as many possible morel habitats as there are hunters. A partial list: on south-facing slopes, on north-facing slopes, in sandy soil, in soil with a high acidity, in soil with a low acidity, in river bottoms, on high ground, in old apple orchards, under cottonwoods, under tulip poplars, under Douglas fir, under ash trees, under oak trees, under Hawthorn trees, in May apple patches. Scientists in Iowa have collected morels from the floor of a storage shed and even on the wet carpet of an unfinished basement. Some people insist that morels grow near railroad tracks because the vibrations shake them up from the soil.

Out West, morels seem to proliferate the year after a forest fire, and there are stories of epic seasons that flood local markets to the point that a sack of just-picked morels goes for three bucks a pound. The connection between morels and burn sites has long been suspected. According to one apocryphal tale, 18th-century peasant women in Provence ignited heather in the hope it would spur morel growth and had to be physically restrained because they were accidentally burning down entire forests.

One theory for morels growing in burn sites or near dying trees is that the mycelium exists in vast quantities but remains dormant until the organism realizes that its food source is dying and figures that it had better reproduce. Sturgeon mentions that a new bore afflicting elm and ash trees, while bad for trees, is great for morels. “Sometimes I watch an elm tree, just waiting for it to die,” he says. “I feel like a vulture.”

Plenty of rain falls in the weeks following the MAW meeting, and at the end of April, I join a dozen morel hunters in Watkins Regional Park in Upper Marlboro, Md., for a MAW-sponsored foray. The morning is overcast and wet, but the rain has stopped. The trees have started to leaf out, and low, green May apple plants blanket the ground. According to the MAW e-mail discussion group, many members have begun to find morels. But not everyone is having luck.

“Have been looking for the past week here in [the] DC area in my usual spots,” one man writes. “Zero. I hate morels. My neck hurts from looking down and I never get to see the trees because I forget to look up and I miss the sights of the spring season.”

Another is aggrieved by others’ success. “I’ve been reading the morel entries on this list with a sense of increasing frustration and bewilderment,” he writes. “As a mushroomer of 30 years standing and an insistent peruser of April woods I have a total of three morels—two esculentas and a black—in my trophy case. Therefore, I must insist that you are all lying. Morels exist only in old photographs that are continually being reproduced in mushroom handbooks. As far as I’m concerned, they are about as real as fairies, and you are all part of an enormous hoax funded by the Trilateral Commission or its ally, the North American Mycological Association.”

In Watkins Park, Jon Ellifritz finds 10 nice-sized morels in about 30 minutes. He zigzags from tree to tree, scanning the ground as he walks. Then a hoot goes up from somewhere up the hill. “That’s either an owl or someone celebrating,” Ellifritz remarks. “Whoops—there’s one.”

Ellifritz picks a light-colored morel and sticks it in his bag. “We’re lucky that the whites and yellows are out today,” he says. “They’re easier to spot.”

“I’ve always been interested in nature,” he says as he bends over to pick up another morel. “I originally wanted to be a marine biologist but eventually got my degree in history and zoology. Then one day I was looking for my dog in the woods and came across a patch of mushrooms. At the time, I was interested in hallucinogenic mushrooms, so I went to get them identified.”

So did he try them to find out if they were indeed mind-altering?

Ellifritz smiles. “That was the final identification test,” he says. “They were more euphoric than hallucinogenic.”

We walk a little more. “There’s one right in front of you,” says Ellifritz.

I freeze, not wanting to step on it, and search the ground. Then I spot it. About 2 inches tall and thin, it seems so obvious that I can’t understand how I missed it. As I kneel down to pick it, we both notice a huge yellow morel about 15 feet away. “Oh!” Ellifritz says as he scurries over and picks it. “That’s a nice one.”

Ellifritz points out two more for me to take, which I do, grudgingly. It feels a lot like reeling in a fish that my father hooked. My paper bag, with the three morels that technically belong to Ellifritz, feels weightless.

We catch up with the MAW group over a rise. Everyone’s bags are full of morels, and they stoop to pluck mushrooms every few steps. Fournet, clutching a custom walking stick topped with a carved morel, holds out a backpack half-full of real ones. “Keep your eyes open,” he says with a grin. “There’s quite a few people out searching, and they’re all finding them. They’re bigger than I expected, too.”

As Ellifritz and Fournet compare their finds, I drift over to a cluster of tulip poplars that registers as a promising habitat. I study the ground, working from one side of a mental grid to the other. My heart leaps when I notice something pale and wrinkled emerging from under the leaves. My very first Morchella deliciosa.

But it’s the only one I find before Fournet gathers the group to move to another area. One family has driven up from Springfield, Va., for the foray. Sonia Chulaki, an ebullient, pony-tailed 9-year-old wearing a blue windbreaker and matching galoshes, is helping her Russian-born mother and grandmother. “We’ve found 68 total, and I found 17,” she announces. “How many have you found?”

“Just one.”

“Don’t worry,” she reassures me as we walk, pausing to stomp in a puddle. “There’s still some around.”

She’s right. After about an hour, I stumble upon a patch of morels so dense that I seem to find two for every one I stop to pick. My bag quickly fills, topped off with a couple of morels the size of baseballs, so big that they had toppled over their own stems. I start to worry about running into a park ranger. According to Christopher Wagnon, division chief for natural and historical resources for the Maryland–National Capital Park and Planning Commission, park visitors are prohibited from taking any plants, animals, fossils, or minerals. The rule goes for all 23,000 acres of county parks in Prince George’s County. The county occasionally issues permits for scientists and to remove invasive, non-native plants, but foragers caught without permits receive citations, which usually constitute a fine of about $100. Wagnon allows that it’s a difficult rule to enforce. “The reality is that if you’re walking through forest and there’s blackberries, and you eat a handful of them, the wrath of the park and planning commission doesn’t come upon you,” he says. “That’s not the issue for us. [The regulations] are really geared toward people digging up plants or capturing animals or that sort of thing.”

I don’t point out to Wagnon that fungi occupy their own biological kingdom and are neither plant nor animal. However, the National Park Service, which oversees Rock Creek Park, specifically prohibits harvesting mushrooms. According to the Rock Creek Park superintendent’s compendium, “No fruits, nuts, berries, mushrooms or cut greenery may be gathered or collected for personal or business use or consumption in Rock Creek Park.”

In all, I find 39 mushrooms in that single spot. Giddy, I hustle down the trail to find someone to show my haul to. On the other side of a meadow, I run into Fournet. I proudly open my bag for him. “Nice!” he says.

Still feeling a mushroom high when I get back to Washington, I head to Glover Archbold Park, a long strip of woods teeming with tulip poplars, to see if my luck will continue inside the District line. I park near the Georgetown University Hospital and find a trail, hopping over a log with layers of cream-colored oyster mushrooms the size of saucers. I leave them alone; I’m looking only for the good stuff.

I head for a group of tulip poplars about 15 feet off the well-traveled trail, and bingo, a morel rises up to greet me. Another one stands a few feet away, and two beside it. A fifth appears next to my left foot. There are seven total, and I kneel to admire them as a woman and her two dogs walk by. One of them trots over to sniff around my feet but leaves the morels undisturbed. “Come on, let’s go,” the woman calls to her dog. “Sorry, I’m sure she thinks, There must be something good over there if he’s standing there.”

That night, I rinse off 20 of the bigger morels, about a third of my take, for dinner. I sauté some chicken, and while the linguine boils, I sauté the morels in butter, seasoning them with a bit of salt and pepper and dried thyme. I throw the chicken over the pasta, top it with the mushrooms, which have cooked down to less than half their original size and released their liquor, and grate some asagio cheese over the whole thing. Deliciosa, from the first bite to the last.CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustrations by Emily Flake.