Gardening: Cold and damp weather put mushrooms on hold

Q. What is going on in nature that so few mushrooms are showing up this spring? I have found very few morels in my favorite spots.

— M.M. of Marissa

A. Mushrooms are fruiting bodies of various fungi. Each species has exacting requirements to produce fruiting bodies. This depends on air and soil temperatures as well as the amount of moisture, humidity and exposure to sunlight. This spring has been on the cold side so far, and this will slow down the mushroom production. We also have had an unusually high amount of rainfall. These two factors are probably are responsible for the low production of mushrooms. But a few sunny warm days with some wind will dry out the soil surface and we could have a large production of mushrooms at one time. So be ready to check your favorite spots every few days. If your favorite spot has several water puddles, this could even prevent the formation of mushrooms this year.

Also, there can be a competition of different mushrooms for the same spot. If the environmental factors favor one species over the other, that species can overtake the production of mushrooms in certain years.

By the way, some mushrooms are larger than whales and cover many acres. Michigan and Oregon have a contest on which state has the largest organism, and it changes every few years. The first gigantic mushroom was discovered in 1992 in Crystal Falls, Mich., by a Canadian attending a fungi conference. It covered 34 acres and was estimated to weigh 100 tons. The scientific name is Armillaria bulbosa and the common name is Shoe String Rot. It feeds on and kills conifer trees.

A second, larger one was found in the Malheur National Forest in Eastern Oregon in 1998 by Catherine Parks. It covers 2,384 acres. This is the Honey Mushroom (Armillaria ostoyae). It grows to the depth of 3 feet in the soil and is estimated to weigh 35,000 tons. It is also a disease on coniferous trees. This organism is estimated to be 2,400 years old.

Remember that mushroom fruiting bodies grow at tremendous speed and, as most mushroom hunters know, they can pop up up overnight. The fruiting bodies have their cells completely formed but enlarge very quickly, with no cell division taking place at all at the time of enlargement.

Knowing your trees will help in finding a spot where certain mushrooms will probably pop up. Elm, ash, oak, hickory and fruit trees seem to be sites of good production.

An older hunter advised me to wait until the oak leaves are the size of a squirrel’s ears as the best time to look for them. This year, the oak leaves are just beginning to form. A few days to a week could be the best hunting if weather cooperates.