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Morel mushroom foraging explodes in Illinois

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Morel mushrooms (WICS)

There's a special type of mushroom growing in the woods of Illinois, and the race is on to find them.

Foraging for morel mushrooms is part of the culture in central Illinois, but this year is like no other. With restaurants shuttered for the COVID-19 pandemic last season, the appetite for morels is at an all-time high.

"I think it's the thrill of the hunt for the most part," Andrew Miller said. "It’s a great way to get out after a long winter out in the woods and looking for something that could possibly be edible if you can find them."

Miller is a mycologist, or fungi researcher, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

He says there's very specific conditions where morel mushrooms can grow.

It only happens from mid-April through early May in Illinois. They like 70- to 80-degree days, 60-degree nights, and moisture levels that are just right.

Plus, they primarily grow on dying trees.

“It's almost impossible to grow anything commercially," Miller said. "They just don't grow in the lab."

That's why the lucky person who finds morels in the woods can charge a pretty penny. Right now, sellers are fetching anywhere from $40 to $65 per pound.

Those prices are causing a mushroom gold rush across the state. A Facebook page called "Illinois Morel Mushrooms" currently has over 67,000 followers.

The mushrooms are popular enough in Springfield that Maldaner's Restaurant Owner Michael Higgins is serving morel pie at $15 per slice.

“The popularity is really a four- to five-week span where they're really popular,” Higgins said.

There are lookalike mushrooms in the area that can make you very sick if eaten, so it’s recommended not to consume any wild mushrooms if you cannot identify them with certainty.

The Sangamon County Department of Public Health says restaurants should only purchase mushrooms from approved sources that can provide a record of the sale.