I never realized the dearth of earth tones in my wardrobe. Casey Spacht, director of Lancaster Farm Fresh Co-op and my guide for a day of foraging in Lancaster County, closed his last logistical planning email thusly: “p.s. wear camo......just playing... but would be good. greens, browns.”
Eventually, I find a ratty old pair of paint-spattered hunter green sweatpants and pair them with an army green “Know Your Farmer” T-shirt. Needless to say, I’m looking pretty good.
I meet Spacht at Susquehanna State Park. He explains that our main target on this sunny April day is morels, the elusive and delicious wild mushrooms that send an army of amateur naturalists into the woods each spring.
Spacht, on the other hand, is the real deal. A self-trained forager armed with an encyclopedic knowledge of regional plants, a passion for imparting knowledge and a healthy dose of patience for newbies, he has agreed to show me the wild bounty of each season, starting with spring.
Spacht grew up in Lancaster. His family didn’t have a lot of money, and ate their fair share of processed junk. “We would eat at fast food restaurants all the time,” says Spacht. “Then I would come out into the woods and find amazing raspberries and blackberries, make different teas and eat dandelions. I loved it.” I can relate to that childlike feeling of escape—after all, I’m out of the office on a school day, trekking through the woods in search of treasures unknown.
Looking for morels is tough, but if you know where to look, you’ve got an advantage. We leave the path in search of some favored fungal haunts—tulip poplars and dead-and-dying elms and ash trees. I can tell Spacht is worried that we won’t find anything; even experts strike out. Last year, he took a group of restaurant chefs from New York City (LFFC customers) out looking for morels. “We were out for five hours,” he says with a resigned chuckle. “We found one.”
As we begin our search, Spacht points out a plethora of other edible things. He cuts a nest of wild garlic bulbs from the ground and stuffs them in his bag. He encourages me to smell the delicate plum-colored flowers that will, in the distant autumnal future, spawn pawpaws. He hands me garlic mustard to taste, and waxes poetic about the elusive fruit of the May apple: “Everything on the plant is poisonous now,” he explains. “The fruit has to get really ripe and turn bright yellow. It tastes like passion fruit. But it’s really rare—I’ve only ever had, like, six. They’re low to the ground, and the possums and raccoons get them.”
Then it happens. Spacht stops. “I see one. Do you see it?” And I do. Nestled in the leaves is an oblong protrusion, light brown and sporting that familiar honeycomb texture. He crouches down and explains that this is when the hardcore looking begins.
Where there is one, there are usually more—all connected to the same root-like structure beneath the forest floor. The mushroom is only the fruit of the fungal equivalent to an underground tree.
Then there’s another. And another. Discerning the mushrooms in the cacophony of textures takes an adjustment of the eye. You can look at one spot a second, third, fourth time, and, on the fifth pass—like a miracle—there it is. Obvious. Blatant.
We visit a few more of Casey’s favorite spots; how he remembers them in the anonymous woods, I’ll never know. Every once in a while, he will pick something, offering me a taste or a look: blood root shocks with its deep orange color, the tubers of the cutleaf toothwort plant have a slight horseradish bite, and wood sorrel’s heart-shaped leaves explode on my tongue with an unexpected lemony jolt.
Mushroom hunters are infamously secretive about their most fruitful spots—hence the camo—and will often go to extremes to get that big score. Extreme, you say?
“There was a place recently that I went to,” begins Spacht. “They were doing some work, and they had it fenced off. I had to scale down a cliff and climb the fence. It was pretty crazy. I did it at night, with a headlamp.”
That might sound a bit Mission: Impossible, but I’m finding my first foraging trip very Zen—lots of staring, and crouching, and listening to the birds. We see turtles, snakes, frogs, and even a skink. (That’s a lizard, not your college roommate.)
And then there are those magical moments when the morels materialize: the heart jumps, the mouth curls into a smile. The intensity of seek and discovery is intoxicating. I try to explain to Spacht how it makes me feel, but he already knows. “To spot something like that, there’s something about it,” he says. “It almost looks alien. I’ve been doing this a long time, and I still feel the same way.”
This is the first in a series of seasonal columns on local foraging. Spacht writes about his foraging efforts at lancasterfarmacy.blogspot.com.