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ANCHORAGE, Alaska - Alaska has a history of booms ? fur, gold, oil. This summer could see another ? a 'shroom boom.
Morel mushrooms, treasured for French cooking, often thrive on land in the year following a forest fire, and Alaska set records in scorched earth last year.
More than 6.5 million acres burned, mostly in Alaska's Interior, the vast middle swath between the Brooks Range to the north and the Alaska Range in the south. With the right moisture and temperatures, Alaska could witness a morel gold rush in late spring.
"That is what we're hoping on," said Jay Moore of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service. "It really depends on environmental factors."
The extension service is putting on workshops in rural communities, showing how to pick, dry and market morels, which when dried can command prices of hundreds of dollars per pound. The service hopes to create a cottage industry in cash-poor places where people last year were smothered with smoke and soot.
It's part of a "mushroom task force" that includes state and federal land managers readying permit systems and informational campaigns. The agencies already are taking calls from commercial harvesters, wondering where to pick.
Where to pick is one of the mysteries of the fabulous fungi, said Trish Wurtz, a U.S. Forest Service research ecologist and affiliate research professor at University of Alaska Fairbanks. Wurtz has studied morels for three years and is fascinated by their enigmatic ways.
"You can go to a study site repeatedly and it's not there," she said of the morel. "And you go the next time, and it's there. And you go back, and it's not there."
Gary Laursen, professor of mycology at the university's Institute of Arctic Biology, said morel hunters should stay away from boggy areas and search where wildfires were hottest, such as hillsides. Morels appear on soil, not the decaying vegetable matter on the ground in a forest.
"If the fire was hot enough to burn away the duff, then overlay all that soil with ash, then you're going to get a prolific fruiting of what are called the ascomes, the fruit body," Laursen said.
Just identifying morels is confusing. Hundreds of species of fungi are in Alaska's soil, many that have yet to be described, Wurtz said. Scientists speculate that five or six species of morel occur in Interior Alaska, varying in appearance depending on where they grow.
Generally, morel season begins as early as the beginning of March in Texas and the Gulf states, and moves north until it reaches Canada by May. Most commercial morel harvesting in North America occurs in western states and Canada.
Black morels are usually the first to appear, followed by the half-free and yellow varieties. Scientists can merely speculate on their life cycles but know they can show up after fire, timber harvest or insect infestation of trees.
Alaska has the potential for a bumper crop, but dry, hot weather could negate other favorable conditions, Wurtz said. A bountiful harvest also depends on price. Morels reach the market from China, Russia, India and eastern European nations.
But Alaska could be attractive to pickers this year. As of early September, only 1.3 million acres in the Lower 48 state had burned, about one-third the average. But 4.3 million acres burned in the Yukon Territory.
The Cooperative Extension Service has conducted 'shroom workshops in Fort Yukon and Tok and had plans for other Interior towns. "We're trying to target the rural communities that were near large pockets of fire," Moore said.
The prices morels fetch can make the effort pay off. A two-ounce package of morels cost $16.99 at Fresh Direct, an online grocery and delivery service in New York City, while they command $33 a pound from Earthy Delights, a firm that supplies delicacies to top chefs.
Moore's workshops encourage people to be good stewards of the land and make sure they obtain permission and permits before picking. With an eye to liability, he will not be giving detailed instruction on what to pick.
"We really are not keying on identifying mushrooms," he said. "That's up to the picker."
Laursen said people are right to show caution. People can get sick from eating false morels and others can be sickened from eating the real thing. For people who have never eaten morels, he recommends eating only a small portion over a few days.
"Unfortunately because of individual body chemistry, not all people can eat this mushroom," he said.
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If it is life that you feel you are missing I can tell you where to find it. In the law courts, in business, in government. There is nothing occurring in the streets. Nothing but a dumbshow composed of the helpless and the impotent. -Cormac MacCarthy
He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus