Mushrooms of the Southern Appalachians

Mushrooms of the Southern Appalachians

If you’ve ever felt the tug of a childhood memory or the call of your cultural roots when you glimpse a morel mushroom in the woods, then you know the magic we’re exploring here. We’re diving into the richness of foraging and the mushrooms of the Southern Appalachians, a tradition that transcends generations and even finds its way into modern art—like Mandy’s incredible gown inspired by these native fungi. Through stories, scientific insights, and art, we’re rekindling a collective love for the forest foods that nourish not just our bodies, but our communities and traditions. So come, explore, and reconnect with the natural world and its enduring impact on our lives.

A Sensory Memory

I had been playing outside, enjoying the early warmth of spring. As I rushed into the house for something, I stopped at the door. A crackling noise emanated from the kitchen, and then a distinct smell tickled my nose. I went in to investigate and saw my dad leaning over our little black deep fryer, a relic as old as I was.

 

“Come here, Sabrina. Try this,” he said, tearing apart something unfamiliar. It must have been hot because he immediately dropped it and stuck a finger in his mouth.

 

“What is it?” I asked, puzzled by the brown mass lying on a paper towel. The oil seeped into the paper, which whisked it away as steam rose from its crumbled form.

 

“Just try it,” he urged, grabbing one from another plate that had already cooled.

 

Nervously, I placed it on my tongue and bit down. It had a woodsy taste with a hint of a nutty flavor.

Dad smiled, popped another into his mouth, and said, “These are morels—mushrooms that grow wild here in the mountains during spring. Do you like it?”

 

“I’m not sure,” I replied sheepishly before dashing off to fetch what I had initially come inside for.

 

“Hey, at least you tried them! That’s all I asked,” he called out down the hall.

 

Every spring after the rains, I recall that memory. My dad is now in his 60s and still forages for wild edibles in the woods. This year, he cooked fiddleheads from new ferns, much to my mother’s disgust. He just laughs because she won’t try anything he brings home. However, nothing is as pungent as the ramps he harvests; even I can’t bear their scent when cooked.

Harvested Morel Mushrooms
Harvested Morel Mushrooms-Image Sourced from Adobe Stock

Southern Appalachian Women's (SAW) Inaugural Meeting

Fast forward nearly 30 years, and Morels appeared in a conversation at SAW’s inaugural meeting. Amanda, who goes by Mandy, excitedly exclaimed, “Oh! I found this lace not long ago that had mushrooms on it! I could make a morel gown!”

“Yes! Yes! Yes!” I squealed with delight and shared my nostalgic story.

That was in August of 2022. By the end of October, Mandy was ready to proceed with the shoot. She had found a stunning model with incredible hair and asked when we could schedule it. October 2022 was my busiest month on record, and I was exhausted. Yet, I was determined to photograph this dress. So, we ventured into the woods near the Blue Ridge Parkway at sunset. I had been so swamped that I hadn’t had time to plan the shoot; I knew I’d have to draw inspiration from the surrounding nature and rely on my instincts.

The shoot was brilliant, and I could have kept going well past sunset, but all good things must end. Just as the sky was slashed by the sun’s most intensely colored rays, we heard someone pull up to an overlook nearby. I kept shooting, but what I heard next stopped me.

A Native American man spoke something in Cherokee and then began singing “Amazing Grace” in his native language.

Naturally, I teared up and cried. I took it as a sign that, as a collective, we were moving in the right direction with this project.

Brown Mushroom Gown in the Southern Appalachian Woods