June is the driest month in Arizona, and one would typically not even consider going out on a foray for edible mushrooms at this time of year. However, thanks to Hurricane Andres and Hurricane Blanca, our rains in May 2015 were markedly greater than usual, and our unexpectedly good morel season extended (even more unexpectedly) into early June.
The Arizona Mushroom Club was therefore able to call its first springtime morel foray in several years for last Saturday, June 13. We met in Vernon, and proceeded out to the high terrain on the south side of last year’s San Juan burn to catch the tail end of the spring fire-morel flush. A very large turnout, with over 20 vehicles and at least 50 eager mushroom hunters, gave the foray organizers some trepidation about finding enough morels to satisfy everyone.
However, these fears turned out to be groundless, as most of us found enough for a meal or two, and some people collected substantially more. Many of the mushrooms were drying out, but the majority were still in good shape. A number of early-fruiting Dryad’s Saddles, Polyporus squamosus, were also collected. At least one cluster of deliquescing Shaggy Manes (Coprinus comatus) was also encountered, but they were well past being fit for the table.
At the end of the foray, a most noteworthy visitor was announced: David Arora, the author of the iconic books All that the Rain Promises, and More! and Mushrooms Demystified. He had arranged to come over for our club outing to see some new terrain and perhaps find some gray morels in the San Juan burn. On both counts, he was successful. He graciously spent some time chatting with his many fans and autographing their books as the meeting broke up.
The gray fire morels, Morchella tomentosa, have long been known to recreational and commercial pickers in the West, but are a relatively recently described species in the scientific literature. Their most notable feature is a dark, velvety stipe that clearly distinguishes them from our more common Western black fire morels, M. sextelata. Under the microscope, long paraphyses or hairs can be seen protruding more than 200 µm outwards from the stipe. The pits are also somewhat smaller and more irregular, at least in young specimens, and the ridges are a lighter shade of gray rather than dark brown or black.
The species is characteristic of burn sites in the Northern Rockies and Pacific Northwest, and this Arizona collection may well be the furthest south it has ever been documented. It is known to be more tolerant of hot, dry weather than other morel species, however, and so it may be worth visiting our burn sites from time to time during the summer to see if more have appeared.
If you have an interest in the latest scientific research on morel taxonomy, check out the recent paper in Mycologia by Franck Richard, Mathieu Sauve, et al., or the summary from the Bay Area Mycological Society.
If you take only a culinary interest in the morels, and care nothing for the intricacies of DNA sequencing and microscopy, the gray morels are nonetheless worthy of your attention. At a blind taste test on Saturday evening, 7 out of 7 people preferred the slightly sweeter taste of the gray morels to the black morels we have been finding before now.
We opened a bottle of halfway decent juice to celebrate our success and the excitement of a visit from such a distinguished guest. The above picture of the wine bottle clearly shows the difference between M. sextelata on the left and the darker-stemmed M. tomentosa on the right.
The next day, we headed for the Mogollon Rim and Happy Jack area, where some 2 to 4 inches of rain had fallen in the previous two weeks. We weren’t expecting much, but hoped that we might run across some early-season fruiters such as the giant sawgill, Neolentinus ponderosus. The forest was green and lush, with lots of standing water.
We did not find any sawgills, but my secret Reishi Garden near Bear Canyon Lake had a fresh fruiting of very soft, white Ganoderma tsugae. This is a species of considerable interest in alternative and traditional Asian medical practice, in which the hard, bitter mature fruiting body is used to make therapeutic teas and elixirs. However, David had heard that young specimens make a good edible before they develop their characteristic yellow-brown “varnish.” We collected half a dozen that were almost as soft and white as marshmallows. Later that evening at my house, we found that they made a delicious broth that tasted almost like beef bouillon, with no trace of the bitterness characteristic of mature specimens. However, the texture was rather squishy and mealy, and less than appetizing.
There were a fair number of Floccularia, but they were relatively young and we couldn’t tell if they were F. straminea or F. albolanaripes. Both are good edibles, and widely consumed by knowledgeable collectors in Colorado in particular. I like to toss these in the basket whenever I come across them.
Farther down the Rim Road, in the vicinity of Big Dry Wash, we were astonished to see multiple large, fresh Leccinum growing from the bank immediately beside the road. There were no aspen near, and the cap was brick red rather than orange, so we decided they were not the L. insigne that is so common in the Arizona high country. They also showed very little staining when cut or bruised, except for mild bluing at the base of the stipe. The large size of 20 cm or more is also a differentiating characteristic. Arora believes they are L. ponderosum or something near.
On a side road heading north from the western end of the Rim Road, we came across several more of the same Leccinum growing under Ponderosa pine saplings. But an even greater coup was scored when David discovered a pristine specimen of Boletus rubriceps, the Rocky Mountain red-capped king bolete that he himself described and named. This is at least a month earlier than I have ever seen it. We were extremely pleased!
A walk in the aspens by Potato Lake produced nothing of interest, so we decided to head north of the Rim into the area of the heaviest rainfall over the preceding weeks. North of Happy Jack, a Ponderosa pine log alongside the road had a small flush of oyster mushrooms (probably Pleurotus pulmonarius) that we eagerly collected.
This was the last edible mushroom we found for the day. Despite the heavy rains and standing water, there were very few fungi north of the Rim, and those that had fruited were mostly inconsequential Little Brown Mushrooms. It may be that the area was suffering more from the drought than the edge of the Rim, and still needs some good precipitation to fruit in profusion.
Going home, we drove down the goat track of Schnebly Hill Road in order to catch the sunset at Sedona. This is one of the premier backcountry drives in the state, with breathtaking views of the red rocks. (Do not attempt it unless you have a 4×4 or high clearance pickup truck!)It will be a long time before I come down from the excitement of hosting David Arora for a weekend and seeing king boletes, scaber-stalk boletes, shaggy manes, oyster mushrooms, Floccularia, and black and grey morels — and all the more so in the month of June. With luck, this is just the beginning of another summer to remember. The monsoon rains are falling in the White Mountains even as this is written, so let’s hope for an early, strong start to the high season. See you in the field!