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Foraging Chicago outdoors: It is time for morel mushrooms, ramps and wild asparagus

The three prime aims of spring foraging around Chicago outdoors—morel mushrooms, ramps, wild asparagus—are at go-time around Mother’s Day.

Turkey vultures, spotted while foraging for wild asparagus, moseying away from a dead raccoon on a country road. Credit: Dale Bowman
Turkey vultures, spotted while foraging for wild asparagus, moseying away from a dead raccoon on a country road.
Dale Bowman

Ten turkey vultures lollygagged Sunday morning around the savaged carcass of a dead raccoon.

Turkey vultures near or on a back road mosey or, more accurately, take their damn time getting out of the way. They finally hopped/flew a few feet to sit in an undisced cornfield. They gave me the stink eye as I eased past the carcass.

Sometimes the joy and wonder of foraging comes as much from the experience of paying attention while outside as from the collections made.

Just as sightings of neighborhood wild animals and birds have jumped during the stay-at-home edicts, so has interest in foraging. Right now, we are in the middle of an overlap of three of the most popular foragings around Chicago: for morel mushrooms, ramps and wild asparagus.

On Sunday, I planned to trek with a chef/deer processor to collect morels. He had to cancel, so I hit my favorite spots along rural roads for wild asparagus. Normally, I wait until later in May, but a couple days earlier Kyle Danhausen sent photos of young asparagus shoots he spotted.

“More signs of Spring!’’ he texted. “I had a hard time not eating it on the spot.’’

Later Sunday, after I had checked my favorite asparagus spots, Ken Gortowski posted photos of nearly perfect freshly picked stalks.

“Slow start, but it’s a start,’’ he messaged. “We need rain, the ditches are bone dry.’’

Ed Schmitt added, “[This] weekend will be money.’’

Early wild asparagus picked by Ken Gortowski. Provided by Ken Gortowski
Early wild asparagus picked by Ken Gortowski.
Provided by Ken Gortowski

Wild asparagus is what it sounds like, generally growing along rural roads or train tracks. Collar counties that have or had truck farms are the best places to start.

Be careful around country roads. Not everybody is rolling at Sunday-drive speed. Cowboys have been known to fly around even gravel roads in their pickups.

Also be careful of asparagus or morels by railroad tracks, whose sides are often sprayed. The same warning applies to picking morels in lawns because, frankly, most lawns are heavily hit with pesticides, insecticides and herbicides.

This Mother’s Day weekend looks to be prime for all three objectives of foragers now.

Last spring, I checked with mycologist Andy Miller, curator of fungi for the Illinois Natural History Survey, who also noted an increase in foragers and had this general advice for morel hunters: “The typical advice of never putting mushrooms in plastic bags, only eat ones that look fresh and never eat anything you definitely cannot identify.’’

I keep a mesh bag in my basic outdoors bag, in case I run into a mess of morels while doing something unrelated. Mesh allows the spores to go. In a similar note, always cut morels, never pull them out.

For beginners, I recommend the Facebook Group “Illinois Morel Mushrooms.’’

Jay Damm, who has been on a roll for morels in the south suburbs, projected last week that morel hunting should be prime this weekend. Traditionally, my best start date for morels is May 5.

For some, it started early.

On Friday, Lee Sczepanski, an excellent morel hunter, got lucky and was near a central Illinois park that unexpectedly reopened.

“They opened the park and there’s huge yellows easy to see because they were unmolested till now,’’ he messaged. “Bring the kids, come have some fun.’’

I often enlist my kids because my eyes suck.

Big yellow morel mushrooms found at a central Illinois DNR site by Lee Sczepanski. Provided by Lee Sczepanski
Big yellow morel mushrooms found at a central Illinois DNR site by Lee Sczepanski.
Provided by Lee Sczepanski

“Still finding blacks, but found some old big yellows,’’ Sczepanski noted. “Strange season with the weather and the ‘Rona.’ ”

Strange is apt.

But don’t let strangeness take over your common sense or legal status.

Morel hunting is allowed in most Illinois Department of Natural Resources parks and recreation areas. But it is not allowed in natural areas and not in most forest preserves or park districts.

Legal questions persist with ramps. In some forest preserves, illegally harvesting them is a real problem. Basically, on public land, you should not be harvesting ramps. That should be restricted to private land.

Though I think Robert Siegerdt, who sent wonderful photos of a sea of ramps in the north suburbs, captured the feeling well with this observation: “An awesome field. We nibbled as we walked through it.’’

There’s a difference between nibbling ramps and digging them up with a spade.

According to the University of Illinois Extension, ramps are native across the Midwest and grow in USDA Hardiness zones of 3-8. In other words, all of Illinois.

They like moist soils in partial to full shade (and old forests). Ramps have green leaves with small white flowers.

This foraging/harvesting talk has me excited to try harvesting wild rice for the first time. The point of living is to experience, to grow.

Ramps growing abundantly. Provided by Robert Siegerdt
Ramps growing abundantly.
Provided by Robert Siegerdt