Mushroom hunter: Itawamba County woman keeps eyes on ground during morel season

By Ginna Parsons/NEMS Daily Journal

Susan Campbell has been interested in mushrooms for as long as she can remember. For years, she’s done research on them and taken pictures of them in the woods.
In 2001, she and her husband, Mike, went to Illinois to visit some friends and they were invited to go hunting for morels, a spongy mushroom prized by gourmets for its smoky, earthy, nutty flavor.
“That’s all it took,” said Campbell, 49. “We probably found over 300 and we cooked them up and had the whole family over. I was in hog heaven.”
When Campbell came back home to Itawamba County, she decided to try and find the mushrooms in her own backyard.
No such luck.
So she transplanted a big box of them from Illinois and went back the next year to see if they’d come back, but they hadn’t.
“I didn’t have any hope of finding them because I wasn’t hunting with hope,” she said.
And then one day in 2008, she was out with her husband, who was planting a food plot. She wandered away from him to a creekbank and was walking aimlessly, looking at flowers, enjoying nature. Of course, she had one eye out for the elusive morels.
“Finally, I stopped and I said, ‘Lord, if there is such a thing as a morel in Mississippi, if it’s your will, will you please show me one?’ And less then five minutes later, I saw a tiny one – probably an inch high,” Campbell said. “I had a praise meeting right then and there. I called Mike on my cell phone to tell him, but I wasn’t making any sense. I was so excited. He came running because he thought I’d been bit by a snake.”
When Mike got to her side, Campbell pointed at the tiny mushroom. Both of them got down on the ground and gently pushed the leaves away, and they found nine small morels.
“That’s when it all started,” Campbell said.
For two to three weeks every spring, Campbell hunts morels in about 20 spots she’s staked out since she spotted her first one five years ago. She checks the spots daily.
“I’ve been picking them for about a week now, but I’ve been hunting them since February,” she said. “Last year, I found my first one on March 7, which is almost unheard of. This year, I found my first one on March 23. One year, I found them all the way through the 19th of April. I’m hoping it will be that way this year.”
Size matters
Campbell said she’s had the best luck finding morels under tulip poplars in bottomland and in privet hedges around old homeplaces. They also like to grow around the base of decayed trees and near black cherry trees.
Because of their gray, black or yellow color and honey-combed, cone-shape caps, they’re not easily spotted in the ground. They blend in with leaves perfectly.
“It’s like an Easter egg hunt for adults,” she said. “It’s exciting and fun to find them.”
Often when Campbell hunts, she takes her 4-year-old grandson, Connor, with her.
“Connor has young eyes and he spots the morels quicker than I do,” she said. “I’ve taught him how to pick them – squeeze them at the base and leave the roots in the ground. And you don’t want to pick a place dry. You want to leave some for seed, for spores. You want them to come back.”
One afternoon last week, Campbell and Connor picked about two dozen morels from three of their spots.
“If I find one that’s nice and fresh and it looks like it will stay a day or two more, I’ll leave it so it can grow bigger,” she said. “Don’t pick a baby when you first see it and you know you can get more out of it. With morels, size does matter.”
Once Campbell gets the mushrooms home, she cleans them and dries them and fries them or uses them to make soup. Sometimes she sautés them in butter and garlic and spoons a few over a steak. If she has too many to use immediately, she might dust them with flour and freeze them for later use in soups or stews.
“They have a real strong flavor, so it doesn’t take much,” she said.
Campbell has sold her morels in the past for $40 a pound and she sold them to one gourmet food store in Tupelo that was able to resell them for $75 a pound.
“You talk to anybody in these parts and they won’t even know what a morel mushroom is,” she said. “And that’s fine with me because I get to hog them for myself.”
Campbell said because morels are so distinctive, it would be hard to pick a poisonous mushroom by mistake.
“There’s nothing else around here that looks like it,” she said. “The easiest thing to do is to learn the mushrooms you need to stay away from. I love morel mushrooms, but not enough to take a chance with my life.”
Campbell is happy to take people out on “forays,” or mushroom-hunting trips when morels are in season. She can be reached at onfiresusan@yahoo.com. But she warns folks not to get too hopeful on their first trip out if they’re going it alone.
“You’re going to get really discouraged if you go out thinking you’re going to find a morel the first time you go out,” she said. “You might find one on your fifth time out under the 20th poplar tree you look under.”
ginna.parsons@journalinc.com

Morel Tidbits
• Pronounced muh-REHL.

• Belongs to same fungus species as the truffle.

• Spongy, honey-combed, cone-shape cap ranges in size from 2 to 4 inches high.

• Season usually begins in late March and lasts for two to three weeks in Northeast
Mississippi.