By Jim Byrd
For The Chronicle
One of the first edible forest mushrooms to appear in the Pacific Northwest is Verpa bohemica, commonly called “early morel” or “spring morel.”
They look similar to the true morels (except for how the stalk and cap are attached), and are in the same taxonomic family but a different genus, so you might consider them “cousins.”
They are not generally considered as choice an edible as the true morel, and can cause digestive and other problems in some people. Many people eat them safely, though, with a bit of caution (see sidebar). They are not deadly, even to those that experience problems.
Verpas, as experienced mushroomers are more likely to call them, can usually be found by the end of March, sometimes as early as the first day of spring.
The accompanying photo shows some that were picked on Tuesday. Their fruiting season may run through the middle of April — then it’s almost time to start looking for the true morels.
Here’s how to go about finding verpas.
First, if you’ve found them before, go back to those places. That’s almost foolproof, unless it’s been logged or cleared.
To find new places, or if you don’t have any places to go back to, the trick is to find cottonwood trees.
Drive along through forested areas or along rivers looking for tall cottonwoods poking up above the surrounding canopy. They can be found mixed in with conifers, or in pure cottonwood stands, such as on some of the Columbia River islands.
Assuming the trees are in a place where you won’t be trespassing (state and timber company lands are usually good places), find a safe place to park, and go check under and in a large ring around each cottonwood. Walk slowly — they’re hard to spot, being very similar in color to the cottonwood leaves on the forest floor.
Once you find one or two and get your eyes “tuned,” it gets a little easier. After you’ve walked a few feet, turn around slowly and look about in a complete circle. It’s easy to miss seeing them from one angle, but have them suddenly appear when looking back.
Also carefully check “bumps” where the cottonwood leaves are pushed up a little. When you find one mushroom, check the nearby area closely; they often grow in scattered clumps.
The freshest and best mushrooms will be grayish-tan to light brown in color.
Leave the large, dark specimens; they will usually be limp, tasteless and extremely buggy.
Once you’ve found a few verpas and made it home, soak them for a couple minutes in salt water; this will help dislodge some of the critters that may have taken up residence.
Lift the cap and remove any remaining insects or spiders; a fairly forceful spray from the faucet helps.
Cut out any obvious bad spots, then rinse and lay them on paper towels to dry.
Gently blot out as much moisture as you can. If you leave them in the water too long, they’ll absorb a lot of moisture and lose their texture.
It’s pretty hard to keep the caps and stems together, so don’t worry if they separate when cleaning. Both the cap and stem are edible, but the cap has more flavor.
Split the stems open to remove any unwanted sources of protein (bugs). The stems should be partly hollow, but often partly filled with a cottony substance.
I like to dip the caps in an egg wash and cracker crumbs, then pan fry. Or saute, then mix in an omelet.
Sorry, no fancy recipes here. Check online or in a cookbook for those.
If you’ve never eaten verpas before, be sure to read the sidebar about cautions. And use common sense when picking them; if it’s windy, don’t go wandering through the woods. Wear a bright, easy-to-see jacket or vest, and have another forager or observer nearby. Wear long sleeves and long trouser legs; these mushrooms like to hide among stinging nettle and brambles.
Verpas can cause unpleasant digestive problems in some people, and have been reported to cause loss of muscular control in others. So here are the rules for smart consumption:
• If you’ve never eaten them before, only eat two or three the first meal
• Cook them thoroughly
• Don’t eat them in large quantities at one meal, even if you’ve eaten them safely before
• Don’t eat them as a full meal in consecutive days
Jim Byrd, Winlock, is a retired educator and outreach specialist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. He is currently putting the finishing touches on a complete Lewis County-area angling report for The Chronicle’s 2012 fishing guide.