A common ailment that strikes naturalists and birders alike is a condition known as warbler neck. This literal pain in the neck stems from looking skyward at tiny birds that are perched in lofty treetop settings. The May influx of warblers is responsible for most the most serious cases of “WN” – thus the clinical name, although it can also occur while watching fall hawks or while trying to catch gull droppings on the tip of one’s tongue. You know you have it when your neck vertebrae freeze and you can no longer lower your head without generating a series of firecracker loud pops and crackles.
During an especially vibrant burst of spring warbler activity it is darn hard not to over indulge in upward looking. Those little things are so colorful and active that they out-compete the forest floor for eye time. They lead us to neck braces through their siren call. Fortunately, God has provided us with a cure in the form of morel mushrooms. The fact that warbler season and morel season overlap is no accident. It is divine intervention.
To find these elusive fungi you must spend a great deal of time looking down when in those warbler woods. There is nothing more appealing than the sight of a big beautiful morel mushroom popping up out of the leaf litter. It is a sight that can instantly pull you away from even the brightest of Blackburnians or Cape Mays. It is also, need I mention, an edible sight. You cannot legally eat wood warblers. Besides, Blackburnians taste like bad sour kraut – or so I’ve heard.
I have never been an accomplished morel hunter, but recently I stumbled (literally) across a cluster of these beauties in a cottonwood woodlot. I was looking up at the time. I would normally look for them when near dead elms or old apple trees but wasn’t thinking about their association with dying cottonwoods. These surprise finds were some of the largest morels I had ever seen. At least one of them was over 30 feet tall – O.K., it was probably more like 9 ½ inches. Unfortunately, I didn’t take a photo of that one, but I did snap a shot of another hefty example (see beginning photo and detail here).
The soaking rains from a few days previous had evidently prompted this gang of Morchella esculenta to make their appearance. For the most of the year, morels are underground mats of intertwined fibers called mycelial masses. An individual mass, which is “the real mushroom,” can be 1 – 4 meters in diameter. The wrinkled pods we call yellow morels are actually the fruiting, or spore-producing, bodies sent up by the collective mass. One mass produces dozens of “mushrooms” just like a tree produces hundreds of flowers. All are part of one. Given this fact, I’d say my cluster of morels were from one mass because they were identical in shape.
All told, morels look like nothing else on earth (even the so-called false morels don’t really look like the genuine article). Yellow morels have a basic look – that of a rounded knob with a deeply pockmarked surface perched atop a white column – but they vary widely in appearance. Some individuals express themselves as long pointed cones with wide bases. Others are more cylindrical with narrow bases. There is great variety in style of pitting as well. Some have deep “open pits” and others “closed pits” that look like they are filled in. Adding yet further variety to the scene, all morels are hollow but some have thin tissue while others have thick tissue. All mushrooms coming from a particular mycelial mat will have identical traits.
My finds were of the cone topped, thick based, open pitted, thin-tissued variety but I did not spend too much time admiring their physical beauty. Sure, I took the requisite trophy shot. All good morel hunters do this – they often pose with their finds and hold up especially nice examples as if they were prize trout. Afterward I sliced them into thin strips and cooked them in a pan of sizzling butter. They were warm, nutty, slightly crunchy, and completely exquisite.
I suppose that looking down too much can cause a condition known as “Morel Neck” but, unlike the opposing warbler-wrought condition, MN is easily cured by chewing.