HAPPY FORAGING – News From The Hills

April tucks her slightly damp robes about her and glides gracefully from the hills, leaving tranquil May to reign for the next month. May has always seemed to be a dainty little maiden, wearing flower-sprigged garments and tripping lightly through the woods. She sprinkles wildflowers as she goes and coaxes the tender woodland plants to come forth out of the rich soil.

The month of May is a balm to the soul here in the hills, with wildflowers springing forth from every nook and cranny. The trees are blooming and putting forth tender, new buds. The sarvis (serviceberry) trees are blooming late this year, but this has been a peculiar spring with more than our share of rain. The redbud trees are covered with masses of showy pink flowers. They march along the highways in thick masses, cheering spring onward and blessing our senses. According to an old myth, Judas Iscariot hanged himself on the related Judas-tree of western Asia and southern Europe, and as a result the white flowers turned red with shame or blood. Their color always reminded me of fresh blackberries mixed with thick cream—one of our childhood delicacies.

The crabapple blossoms have stuck their wee pink noses out, decided the weather was to their liking, and promptly burst into full bloom. Apple trees, not to be outdone, are adorned with their delicate pink and white blossoms, and their heavenly scent wafts through the air. The modest violets peep shyly through the soft green grass and spread their blue mantle thickly beneath their flowery limbs.

Hummingbirds have been sighted, and I saw a pair of goldfinches darting in and out near the bird feeder. They will soon nest, but right now they are checking out the field where the purple thistle grew thickly last year. I am watching for the bluebirds that always nest in the bright red birdhouse, but they have not been sighted yet. The air is full of the color, the sound, and the smell of spring. May is such a delightful month here in the hills, and it makes you glad to be alive.

Dogwood trees, with their white, cross-shaped blossoms tinged with brown, and just now beginning to bloom. Legend says that the cross upon which Christ was crucified was made from the wood of the dogwood tree. Seeing the trees distress at the use of its wood, He made a promise that it would never again be used for this purpose. Instead, this once-stately tree would grow small and twisted, and the flower petals would be shaped like a cross with bloodstained edges.

The center of the blossom would resemble a crown of thorns, so that all who observed it would remember His death on the cross. Of course, this is merely a legend, but I always think of the cross of Christ when I see a dogwood in bloom. One of the most beautiful sights in the spring is a hillside thickly sprinkled with blooming dogwood and redbud.

This is an abundant mushroom year. The earlier dark morels are gone, but the bigger, light ones, called the yellow morel, are being found along the creek and under poplar trees. They range in color from blonde to yellow-brown and are meatier than the dark ones. A lot of them are big enough to stuff, and Sally, my nephew Doug’s wife, is the expert when it comes to that. She is an excellent artist, besides being a gourmet cook.

We call them “merkles”, my late brother-in-law Howard called them “muggles” and many folks call them “Molly-Moochers.” No matter what you call them, they are considered to be the best-tasting mushroom to be found in the hills. Someone asked me how you could be sure that they are the edible variety, and I don’t see how you could mistake them.

They are honey-combed, hollow and attached to a thick, whitish stalk at the base. Many times they are found in old apple orchards, and under poplar, ash and other trees. Sometimes they spring up in burned-out areas. One spring we found several big fat ones where we had burned a brush pile the previous fall. They seem to pop through the ground almost like magic after a warm rain.

A genuine merkle hunter guards his territory like the prospectors did their gold claims. It is a breach of mountain etiquette to inquire closely where someone found a prize specimen. You will receive a mumbled reply about as specific as the continent of Africa. Family ties and lifelong friendships have no meaning when it comes to revealing your private mushroom patch. To this day, I don’t know the location of my husband’s secret patch. He took me one time (no, he didn’t blindfold me) but it was such a roundabout route that I’d never find it again.

They are called “the highly esteemed morels of haute cuisine” by my mushroom guidebook, but I reckon we fix them “country style.” Their flavor is so delicate to fix them any way except simply sautéed in butter with a hint of garlic, but many folks like them rolled in flour or cracker meal and fried in butter or oil. They can be used in spaghetti, pizza or mushroom soup, or in any way that you use commercial mushrooms.

It is a good idea to split them and soak overnight in salt water, though. There is a tiny bug that seems to like them as well as we do, and it takes soaking and repeated washing to get rid of them. I figure that we have eaten several of these tiny little fellows, but I don’t worry about it. A bug that likes merkles can’t be all bad.

And so, the West Virginia hills are beginning to offer the delicious wild foods that are abundant throughout the year. I am waiting anxiously for poke greens, which are best when they are gathered while four or five inches high. I can’t scramble through the fields and woods as I once did, but, have to depend on a kind-hearted soul to share them with me. The fiddlehead ferns are ready now, but I’ve never had much luck with them. I cooked a mess one time, and they tasted like ferns!
Happy foraging!

By David Morton
My faith is a doubtful thing,
Wove on a doubtful loom,
Until there comes, each showery spring,
A cherry tree in bloom;
And Christ who died upon a tree
That death had stricken bare,
Comes beautifully back to me,
In blossoms, everywhere.

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Alyce Faye Bragg

She writes the "News From the Hills" column. Born and raised in the country, and still lives on the same farm where she was raised. Has a sincere love for nature and the beauty of the hills. Began writing in 1981 & currently has three books published. > Read Full Biography > More Articles Written By This Writer