April 15, 2005


ANCHORAGE, Alaska - Alaska has a history of booms - fur, gold, oil. This summer could see another - a 'shroom boom.

Morel mushrooms, treasured for French cooking, often thrive on land in the year after a forest fire, and Alaska set records in scorched earth last year. More than 6.5 million acres burned, mostly in the vast swath between the Brooks Range to the north and the Alaska Range in the south. With the right moisture and temperatures, Alaska could witness a morel gold rush in late spring.

"That is what we're hoping on," said Jay Moore of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service. "It really depends on environmental factors."

The extension service is putting on workshops in rural communities, showing how to pick, dry and market morels, which when dried can command prices of hundreds of dollars per pound. The service hopes to create a cottage industry in cash-poor places where people last year were smothered with smoke and soot.

It's part of a "mushroom task force" that includes state and federal land managers readying permit systems and informational campaigns. The agencies are taking calls from commercial harvesters, wondering where to pick.

Where to pick is one of the mysteries of the fabulous fungi, said Trish Wurtz, a U.S. Forest Service research ecologist and affiliate research professor at University of Alaska Fairbanks. Wurtz has studied morels for three years and is fascinated by their enigmatic ways.

"You can go to a study site repeatedly and it's not there," she said of the morel. "And you go the next time, and it's there. And you go back, and it's not there."

Gary Laursen, professor of mycology at the university's Institute of Arctic Biology, said morel hunters should stay away from boggy areas and search where wildfires were hottest, such as hillsides. Morels appear on soil, not the decaying vegetable matter on the ground in a forest.

"If the fire was hot enough to burn away the duff, then overlay all that soil with ash, then you're going to get a prolific fruiting of what are called the ascomes, the fruit body," Laursen said.

Just identifying morels is confusing. Hundreds of species of fungi are in Alaska's soil, many that have yet to be described, Wurtz said. Scientists speculate that five or six species of morel occur in interior Alaska, varying in appearance depending on where they grow.

Generally, morel season begins as early as the beginning of March in Texas and the gulf states, and moves north until it reaches Canada by May. Most commercial morel harvesting in North America occurs in western states and Canada. Black morels are usually the first to appear, followed by the half-free and yellow varieties. Scientists can merely speculate on their life cycles but know they can show up after fire, timber harvest or insect infestation of trees.

Alaska has the potential for a bumper crop, but dry, hot weather could negate other favorable conditions, Wurtz said. A bountiful harvest also depends on price. Morels reach the market from China, Russia, India and Eastern European nations.

- Associated Press

No magic pill

Quick Takes

Sorry, guys. There doesn't appear to be a magic pill for shedding unwanted pounds.

Men's Health magazine, in an issue devoted to weight loss, has reviewed the ingredients of four popular, over-the-counter ephedra-free supplements. Their take: None of the products reviewed stood up to advertising claims.

That's a problem for health-conscious men, many of whom spend an estimated $25 million a year on ephedra-free supplements. The federal government banned ephedra in 2003.

The magazine reviewed Ephedra-free Hydroxycut, Xenadrine EFX, Trim Spa Completely Ephedra Free and Prolab Therma Pro Ephedra Free. Each product tweaked scientific findings to hype the possibility of boosting your metabolism.

A better bet is to eat more healthful foods to jump-start your natural fat-burning machine.

Bottom Line: Save your money on supplements. Instead, put it toward higher quality foods such as fresh fruits, cottage cheese and fish. - Mary Beth Regan

In Brief

Beware of too much water

Runners, hikers, bikers, even soldiers on long maneuvers should think twice before reaching for that water bottle: A study confirms that drinking too much can be dangerous, even deadly, for endurance athletes.

Researchers who studied 488 runners in the 2002 Boston Marathon found that 62, or more than one in eight, had a serious fluid and salt imbalance from drinking too much water or sports drinks. Three of them had extreme imbalances, according to the study by Harvard Medical School researchers in this week's New England Journal of Medicine.

"More is definitely not better when it comes to fluids, but it's a hard message to get across," said Leslie Bonci, director of sports nutrition at Pittsburgh Medical Center.

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