The previous extent of my mushrooming has pretty much focused around the fall when the fruiting bodies emerge from beneath the moss, on the sides of logs, and through the cottonwood leaves. Pines, chanterelles, shaggy mane, and combs tooth are all I really know well enough to harvest and eat without being worried I might kill my family. But this year, it was the spring harvest of morels that called. My partner in crime suggested we bring the kids. They (the kids) are low to the ground and possibly more enthusiastic about picking mushrooms than we are. They had a small taste of the exciting morel hunt a couple of years ago picking in the Boulder Creek fire zone. We were all excited about finding a few morels to cook, save, trade.
We decided to pick in the Elephant Hill Fire zone that burned about 192,000 hectares in the Cariboo last year. While this is undoubtedly devastating on many levels, fire is part of the natural disturbance regime of that forest type. Many species that grow in that area are fire-adapted or fire-dependent. For example, the thick bark of mature Douglas-fir can withstand moderate fire (check out the fire scarred trees at One Mile Lake). Deep roots of vaccinium species (blueberries, huckleberries, etc) survive and send up an abundance of new shoots in following years. The cones of pines trees have a waxy coating which opens in response to the heat of the blaze, scattering seeds onto soil newly fertilized by nutrients in the ash. Many forest types require fire to stay healthy, to regenerate. Indigenous people throughout the world incorporated fire into their traditional landscape management. Lil’wat people extensively burned areas within their Traditional Territory to promote food production, and “the hills were just like a garden” (Baptiste Ritchie in Turner, 1999). Root vegetables such as: Indian potatoes or skewnkwina, yellow avalanche lily or sk’am’c , and tiger lily or skimuta (Lilium columbianum) and many berry crops were managed through controlled burning to produce better crops (Turner, 1999).
Fire suppression to protect homes, communities, forest “crops” and other interests have impacted this natural disturbance regime. Without fire, forests are susceptible to disease such as the mountain pine beetle and over time, stagnate. Forests that historically burned regularly in a patchwork pattern now are subject to catastrophic, widespread, high intensity fires that change the way the forests regenerate. Soils become hydrophobic, resulting in a vegetative moonscape and flash flooding (we saw this near Loon Lake). Fire-adapted species can’t withstand the intensity. The list goes on.
However, I digress. Back to the morels.
Morels and wild mushroom harvesting in general are a huge industry. In preparation for the onslaught of mushroom pickers, the Secwépemc people (whose Traditional Territory we were picking on) implemented a permitting system, created designated campgrounds, and on-the-ground safety support. Permits in hand, we tested a few places on the way up to our destination. We kind of thought we may need to be picking with elbows out like on an epic powder day but were pleasantly surprised to be alone. Within a couple of minutes of jumping out of the truck the kids were shouting in excitement.
But we did not expect what waited for us only a short distance from our cabin. The forest floor was littered with morels in places. Over the course of a couple of short and easy days picking, we harvested all we needed for ourselves and close friends, so abundant in the immediate area we stayed in sight of the truck the entire time. In places, you had to really watch where you stepped so that you didn’t crush these highly camouflaged gems.
The kids, in total disregard to the cloud of mosquitos, picked solidly and without complaint, filling their buckets amidst cries of “Jackpot!”. “Partner Alert! I need help!”.
We hypothesised about abundance, distribution, ecology. I was excited to come home and learn more. I wanted to know why morels appear after a fire, and the question seems somewhat unanswered by science. While much research has been conducted in recent years regarding the extraordinary and fascinating importance of mycelium or “mushroom roots” in the forest floor (check out this video– SO COOL!), morel ecology, spatial distribution, and abundance are not widely researched. In order to make sense of one hypothesis, it helps to have basic knowledge of the mushroom life cycle.
Some scientists suggest that after a fire destroys many of the plants the morel hyphae may have been working with, the hyphae are stimulated to form fruiting bodies and send their spores far and wide in hope that some will land in areas with living plant roots. Totally plausible in my eyes.
It is fascinating to think about how ecosystems are adapted to respond to catastrophe. It gives me hope in our changing world. If a morel mushroom can withstand the hottest of fires and not only survive, but thrive, can we heal our hurting planet? Can our natural world adapt fast enough for climate change? Is that part of why our hearts are buried so deep in our chests? I like to think that is why for some of us, our fears, happiness, vulnerability, our joy are buried in emotional vaults that they are just waiting to be tested, to have the opportunity to rise up, to spread, to be released.
It makes me think about the projects I am working on right now, which have a strong focus on “resiliency”. It seems to be the new buzz word, superceding sustainability. Like the theory of morels acting out of a need for survival, I wonder what the catalyst will be for individuals and communities to summon the vision of resiliency into the action of resiliency. It is already happening, I know, but at the same time it feels like our world is constantly bracing, building, preparing. I am grateful to celebrate the ways in which our community builds resiliency. Great weekends away with great friends. Breaking bread, sharing food, spreading ideas.
I employed a variety of methods to preserve my bounty but focused on dehydrating. My favourite morel recipe so far was a simple Risotto Bianco with morels and garlic scapes sautéed in butter. If anyone is inspired to go hunting for morels, I think that area will still be good until mid-June or so. Keep a watch on fires happening this summer and plan a trip for next spring. Like most trips to the woods, it deeply satisfied the nerder naturalist and philosopher in me!
I absolutely love this idea: Is that part of why our hearts are buried so deep in our chests? I like to think that is why for some of us, our fears, happiness, vulnerability, our joy are buried in emotional vaults that they are just waiting to be tested, to have the opportunity to rise up, to spread, to be released.
Thanks for giving me a new way to look at mushrooms and fires.
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Very interesting thoughts. Glad to see there are other nerder/philosophers out there, so you are not alone.
Natural fires have been on earth for a very long time. We usually don’t think of fires in terms of evolutionary impacts, but living things have adapted to survive them. As you point out, our obsession with preventing fires has actually made things worst. But life always “finds its way”. There is next to nothing that can stop life, even if it means changing to survive.
I have also pondered about morels for a few years. These guys are a natural laboratory. Now we know that morels have a symbiotic relationship with some trees but they also do well with dead organic matter. So what is the scoop with the overproduction after forest fires? Theories abound:
1) Survival instincts – morels detect that the source of nutrients is dead. Morels use the left over nutrients in the ashes to reproduce quickly and spread their spores. But morels, because of their morphology (not a cap shroom) are not capable of spreading out the spores in large areas, so what is the advantage of overproducing spores if they just fall in nearby burned soil the spring after a previous forest fire? Perhaps the overproduction may intensifying the spore counts and allow nature to spread them in a larger area.
2) Sometimes, living things are more apt to reproduce faster when they find themselves in a “fat and happy” environment. After a fire there is a huge amount of bio-available nutrients from the ashes and competition from other organism is greatly reduced. So morels have the perfect environment to reproduce. The same happens with many other species. Think for example the garden varieties. On the other hand, other plants reproduce abundantly when they encounter stress. Maple trees seeds and ragweed polen quantities sky rocket during dry summers. Elm trees overproduced as of result of the Dutch Elm disease. So which one is it with fire morels? Stress or perfect growth environment, or both.
3) Heat disrupts the morel sclerotia – Morels (and many other shrooms) have cleverly developed a natural food cellar: the sclerotia. Although sclerotia probably developed so that shrooms can to survive cold winters, there is some evidence that the sclerotia is also a preservation adaptation to the intense heat from fires. Which leads to the question: why intense heat triggers overproduction while harsh winter cold does not?
4) Then we could have a combination of theories and many other that we have not even thought about.
To confuse matters, morels life cycle seems to be very complicated. Morels fruit not only from the mycelia but also directly from the sclerotia. Sometimes morels alternate growth between mycelia and sclerotia for years without fruiting. It seems they are just happy to consume available nutrients and reproduce only when they need to “jump” to other areas in search of more nutrients. Also, morel’s physiology shows some characteristics from yeasts. Are morels still evolving into fungui?
It is amazing that these shrooms adapt to fierce competition, harsh environmental changes, and still manage to share life with other diverse living organisms. What better example for the human species to follow? But, if you think about it, humans are already doing all this. We compete with each other and other species. We survive harsh environmental changes (we even adventure into space). We are able to interact with many other species and in the last century we are getting better at realizing that we need to maintain the ecosystem for everyone’s benefit. In that respect, we just resemble what many other organism and we just evolve constantly to survive.
Love your Risotto Bianco recipe. The blandness of the rice makes morels to show off like celebrities. My favorite recipe is having them sautéed with butter, onions, garlic, and a little touch of Marsala wine and cream.
Keep shrooming and thinking!
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Wow! So great! Thanks for sharing your knowledge and insight!
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