The winter weather is gone, and for Stan Schneck and other mycologically minded souls, that can mean only one thing: mushroom time.
In a few days, the season's first wild 'shrooms will appear around here, and from then until fall, Schneck will spend hours a week - often hours a day - looking for them. Same as he has for 45 years now.
"I'm one of the more prolific mushroom hunters around. When the season is right, I'm out in the woods looking as much as I possibly can," Schneck says.
"I've gotten good enough now that there are 10 mushrooms that I really like to eat," he says. "I usually find several hundred pounds of each variety every year."
At that rate, he's eating mushrooms with just about every meal.
"I'm always cooking with mushrooms. I make all kinds of dishes. Even like spaghetti - you go out to the store to buy mushrooms, I go out to the woods to get 'em," he laughs.
Of course, the first fungi of the season is the coveted morel. It's the only edible mushroom out there until June or so, it's easily recognizable, and people everywhere swear by its taste. Sites like morelhunters.com track the progression of morel sightings north as the weather warms.
When Schneck - or Señor Stan, as he's known, thanks to the salsa he makes - heads out on the river or other common public hunting grounds, it's not uncommon to see a dozen people out looking for morels.
No big deal, he says. "There's a LOT of mushrooms out there that are just as edible and some that are even better," Schneck says.
The problem for the casual mushroom hunter is learning to identify all those others, lest they turn out to be one of the toxic varieties.
Schneck's never gotten sick from mushrooms, but even after 45 years of hunting, he's still very careful.
"If I'm not sure, I don't mess with it. When I do have questions, I usually run to Sherry - help me, Sherry! What is this? Can I eat it?"
Sherry Kay is the Kaw Valley Mycological Society's co-founder and current president.
In a town without a professional mycologist, she's pretty much the resident expert whom people consult with mystery mushrooms.
"People leave paper bags with their telephone numbers on my doorstep all the time," she says of her home at 601 Miss. St. "I'll call back if I can identify it."
Kay, her husband, Richard, and a few others started the KVMS 25 years ago.
"When I came to grad school at KU, I didn't have any money," Kay laughs. "So in order to eat I did a variety of things - fished in the Wakarusa and hunted mushrooms."
Her culinary needs led to a broader interest in fungi, and after taking a mycology class at KU, she and some friends formed the society to pool their resources.
"We started out with 80 members," Kay says. "People thought we were going to show them where to find morels. Well, morels are where you find them. And I'm not very good at finding them."
These days, the society is half that size, with 15 longer-term regular members. One of those is George Sayers, who writes the KVMS newsletter.
The 34-year-old has always hunted mushrooms, but his current passion for it didn't start until 2004. He'd just moved to a new farm south of Lawrence, and voila - mega jackpot morel spot.
"That's really what reinvigorated my interest in hunting mushrooms," Sayers says. He picked up "A Guide to Kansas Mushrooms" (a book that Richard Kay co-authored) and set about learning to identify mushrooms he found by their Latin names.
"Mushrooms are extraordinarily difficult to identify, even for people who are very experienced," Sayers says. That's where the KVMS can be a sort of support group.
"If you come to a Mycological Society meeting, you'll see we're all kind of lost," he laughs. "But it is easy to learn the dangerous mushrooms that you need to avoid."
"A lot of people are eating wild mushrooms that their families may have consumed for generations, and they represent species of mushrooms that have never been described by science. There are just so many of them out there," he says.
The current tally for unique species identified in Kansas is over 1,000 and counting. But like Schneck, Sayers is primarily interested in relatively few - the edible ones.
"It's a way to have gourmet caliber ingredients in meals," he says.
"I love modern cooking, and I like having access to gourmet quality ingredients in the food I give my family. A lot of people are satisfied with eating iceberg lettuce and Cheetos, but that's not something I enjoy."
COMMON EDIBLE KANSAS MUSHROOMS
Distinguishing characteristic: Deeply pitted (not merely wrinkled) surface. When cut open, they will always be hollow; false morels have connective or cotton-like tissue inside.
Where to look for them: Near dead or dying trees, particularly elm, and along river and creek beds.
When to find them: Mid-April to mid-May.
CHANTERELLE (Cantharellus cibarius)
Distinguishing characteristic: Blunt ridgelike feature on the surface without gills underneath as expected with familiar mushrooms. Fruity apricot-like fragrance.
Where to look for them: Forests dominated by mature oak trees.
When to find them: Mid-June through early October.
INDIGO MILKCAP (Lactarius indigo)
Distinguishing characteristic: Dark blue colored mushrooms exude bluish-green latex when damaged or cut.
Where to look for them: Oak forests with thick leaf litter.
When to find them: Summer through early autumn.
BLACK TRUMPET (Craterellus cornucopioides)
Distinguishing characteristic: Vase-like shape, smooth to slightly uneven surface, black to grayish overall color. Sweetly fragrant odor.
Where to look for them: Hardwood forests, usually growing in thick blankets of moss.
When to find them: Summer through early autumn.
HEN OF THE WOODS or MAITAKE (Grifola frondosa)
Distinguishing characteristic: Compact, overlapping, spatula-shaped fronds, that are brownish on top and white below.
Where to look for them: At the base of oak trees.
When to find them: Late-August through October.
BLEWIT (Lepista nuda)
Distinguishing characteristic: When young, overall color is violet, later becoming pale brown. Fragrant odor often described as possessing a subtle sweetness. Light pink to cream colored spore print (potentially dangerous lookalikes leave a rusty brown spore print).
Where to look for them: A common inhabitant of compost piles and woodland hummus.
When to find them: Most frequent in autumn.
OYSTERS (Pleurotus ostreatus)
Distinguishing characteristic: White to gray color. Grow only on wood. Odor similar to oysters or fish. White spore print.
Where to look for them: Growing on elm or willow trees.
When to find them: Late October - November.
- Mushroom photos and info courtesy of George Sayers, Kaw Valley Mycological Society.