In celebration of spring, people flock to their secret locations in search of morels. They start hunting weeks too early, unable to rein in their anticipation. This delusional state reoccurs annually for their entire lifetime. However, there is an antidote, another early fungal treasure to be sought. While stomping about in the weeks leading up to the arrival of morels, countless foragers step over or on the snowbank mushroom, Gyromitra montana, which resembles a large psychedelic walnut. This is a member of the false morel family, some of whom contain notable amounts of a volatile neuro toxin named Gyromitrin.
This year I’m anticipating a good harvest of snowbank mushrooms, colloquially called calves’ brains. Our epic winter and deep snowpack are the conditions they love. Generally, fruitings are sparse and you’re lucky if you find more than a few. Occasionally they come up in great numbers, a wondrous experience that sets you up for years of disappointing harvests. This is what happened to me at the age of 19 hiking with my mother and her wolf hybrids in Chewelah. We were on a burnt hill scouting for morels when the dogs chased a deer that broke its leg in a panicked flight. I followed it along the slope, until it fumbled and got stuck under a fallen log. Pulling out a pocket knife, I said goodbye to the deer, which had become calm in resignation, and cut its throat. It was the only time I’d killed another large mammal. As the blood drained, an indescribable presence of death and transformation enveloped us. The deer slipped away to the spirit realm. When I sat up, the hill was covered in giant walnut looking mushrooms.
The snowbank mushroom is easily recognized from other members of the family. It has a brain-like appearance and the color is a distinctive tawny that can have reddish tints. There is a thin lip of a cap that surrounds the stout base, though the distinction between what is cap and stem is hazy. When cut in half it is formed of convoluted walls folded about in the interior. The texture is brittle unlike other members of the family and, as with Russulas, good for tossing at fellow foragers to slow them down. The resulting impact is a satisfying explosion.
The appeal of mushrooming is often equated to adult Easter egg hunting, and spring is the time this is most true. There are fewer to be found, but many are large, edible and striking, such as the snowbank mushroom. Talking to old timers here, “calves’ brains” are one of the few fungi that have been collected since the pioneering days. They grow around rotting wood, burns, or near melting snowbanks. They are prone to attack by insects, so check the bottom for activity when picking.
Identifying Attributes: Lobed and brain like with a stocky, thick stem wrapped in a tawny cap. Brittle and crumbly. Growing in morel habitat as the snow recedes.
Cautionary Points: Cook well in an open pan with good ventilation to render edible. Poisonous look-alikes have a distinct stem and in some cases a saddle-shaped cap.
Culinary Attributes: Milder in flavor and softer in texture than morels and thus more universal in application. Particularly good in eggs or on bruschetta.//
Kelly Chadwick is an arborist and owner of Spirit Pruners. He wrote about edible inner bark in March.