The streak of 80-plus-degree days in late March has brought out morel mushrooms at an unprecedented date. Longtime mushroom hunters say this late-March emergence is the earliest for the fungus to surface in central Illinois. Photo by Matt Buedel.
Morels popping up early in central Illinois
PEORIA — To the list of unexpected sightings in an unseasonable central Illinois spring, add another item: morels.
The forest fungus made an unprecedented appearance this week along with some farm equipment on rural roads and blossoms on trees that by now usually only have buds.
Following a string of record-high temperatures ushering in the first day of spring, the brain-shaped mushrooms popped up in small numbers a few weeks to a full month ahead of traditional times.
“The earliest I’ve seen them or heard of them being picked is March 28 . . . so we’re a good week ahead of that,” said Tom Nauman, the purveyor of Morel Mania in Magnolia and organizer of the Midwest Morel Fest.
Now Nauman, like other mushroom hunters who anticipate an unpredictable season, is looking to the weather forecast.
The early bounty that has arrived brought with it variables that could cut short the morel harvest. Now that the fungus has emerged, a second heat wave could end the season prematurely.
“As long as we don’t hit 85 degrees for three or four days in a row, we should be all right,” Nauman said.
But the possibility of a hard freeze also exists. That scenario could damage morels that have already surfaced, though it wouldn’t necessarily equate to a season-ending phenomenon.
“Even though it’s early, it looks like it’s going to be a fair year if not a good year,” Nauman forecast. “Now we’re getting the rain, and it’s cooling off, so that’s a good thing.”
If that climate continues, the season could even be prolonged. Nauman even said he was confident there would be mushrooms still around for the morel hunting competition in conjunction with the Midwest Morel Fest on May 4 and 5 in Ottawa.
“There will still be mushrooms there, so I’m not worried about that,” he said. “Right now, it depends on how much rain you get and what the ground temperature is.
“It could get hot or cold, and nobody knows.”