Hunting for Mushrooms is Great Outdoor Fun
My wife is remarkably tolerant of all the time I spend outdoors. I flatter myself that she is genuinely glad when I return, but I also have noticed that she welcomes me home with special enthusiasm when I bring back venison or morel mushrooms. Lady Luck smiled on me last fall, so we have an ample supply of the former, but I felt some pressure last week as I set out on a morel-hunting trip.
Truth be told, I am only a muddling mushroomer. It’s a rare year when I don’t bring home at least a handful of Missouri’s most treasured spring morsels, but oftentimes that’s all I find. My failure to excel is not for a lack of wear and tear on boots. I log a lot of hours in the woods at this time of year, nor is it because I lack information. I know people who collects bushels of morels each spring and I have tried my best to learn the secrets of their success.
Over the years I’ve also amassed a small library of books on the subject and since the advent of the internet, I eagerly consume every available tidbit of morel lore. Yet my annual haul is more likely to be measured in ounces than pounds. My spotty mushrooming record does make the occasional success all the sweeter. So far, this year’s morel season is better than average. My only outing so far yielded enough morels for the two of us to make complete pigs of ourselves, not once, but twice! As proof, I offer the accompanying photos. With my confidence bolstered for at least one year, I’m ready to offer what wisdom I possess about finding morels.
First, it’s wise to remember that every morel season unique. For example, the spot where I struck it rich this year consists of perhaps 50 acres of forested Missouri River bottomland between Jefferson City and Rocheport. In some years, I don’t find a single mushroom on my first two or three visits and then hit the mother lode. Other years – like this one – the morel “hatch” is sporadic. I know this because on my first visit, I found about four dozen mushrooms ranging from freshly sprouted specimens to ones whose condition clearly indicated they were at least a week old.
That first, highly successful trip occurred two weeks after I heard the first reports of others finding morels and a full month after the early bloom of red (Gyromitra esculenta) mushrooms. What finally got me motivated was the opinion of a professional botanist that the big yellow morels (Morchella esculenta) come up about the time lilac bushes are in bloom. By coincidence, the lilacs in my front yard had just popped and it motivated me to shake off my winter doldrums.
I’ve received many other tips about when morel blooms occur and what triggers them. Many people say that morels will appear when May apples sprout or when oak leaves reach the size of a squirrel’s ear. They seem irritated when I ask whether they mean gray or fox squirrels.
Another variation is that gray morels appear when serviceberry trees bloom. I’ve been told that morels come out at the same time that the galls of cedar-apple rust produce their gelatinous spore fingers. This sort of makes sense, because this happens after a rain.
I’ve heard the date of two weeks before the average date of last frost offered as the magic moment for morels, but the dates for this seasonal event given by almanacs and university extension services have gone out the window since climate change set in.
Some of the sources I have consulted over the years suggest that black morels (Morchella elata) and gray morels (Morchella tomentosa) begin emerging when the average daily temperature (the average of the high and low temperatures) reaches 50 degrees. Personally, I think this formula needs to take into account whether the sky is clear or cloudy. Without direct sunlight to warm the soil, I don’t think that days with high and low temperatures of 60 and 40 degrees will trigger a morel crop.
It’s also important to keep in mind land aspect – the direction that any slopes face. South and west-facing slopes get significantly more direct sunlight and will always produce morels earlier than north or east-facing slopes. It makes sense to look for morels the day after a warm rain.
To be honest, I haven’t found that following the preceding rules of thumb improves my success, but anything that gets you off the couch and in the woods improves your chances of finding morels!
Where to find morels is the other half of the puzzle. River and creek bottoms are excellent places to start, but you can also find morels on ridges and everywhere in between. The public land surrounding the many U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reservoirs in Missouri produce scads of morels each spring. Hiking as far from road or water access will increase your odds of success.
One guideline that seems to have almost universal credibility among successful morel harvesters is that big crops are triggered by woodland fires the previous year. Reliable reports of this phenomenon always seem to come from the Western United States, which is not much use to Midwestern mushroomers. However, this widely accepted wisdom does seem to have a logical connection to an intriguing scientific discovery about when morels appear.
We tend to think of morels and other mushrooms as complete organisms like trees, however, mushrooms really are only fruiting bodies, much more like pine cones than trees. In the case of mushrooms, the “tree” is a huge underground network of root-like runners known as a mycelium.
Like all fungi, morels lack chlorophyll, so they can’t make their own food. Instead, they get their nutrients from plants that do have chlorophyll. Some fungi get break-down tree stumps and other parts of dead plants. Others are parasitic, but the situation is more complex for many fungi, including morels. Their mycelia intertwine with the roots of trees in a mutually beneficial relationship. The morels get sugars from the tree’s sap. The trees tap into the morel’s huge underground mycelium, multiplying their own roots ability to pull water and inorganic nutrients out of the soil.
Here’s where it gets interesting, research has revealed that when a tree’s health begins to decline, the associated morel mycelium somehow detects this fact. Sensing that its chlorophyll gravy train is near the end of the line, the morel sends up escape pods – the delectable, spore-producing mushrooms that we humans eagerly snatch up.
In light of this, it makes sense that morels would be more plentiful the year after a forest fire might have stressed trees in a stand of forest. One recently burned forest tract in Austria was reported to have produced 44,000 pounds of morels in one season.
Please don’t take this as a suggestion that you start a forest fire. Instead, touch base with the Mark Twain National Forest or the nearest office of the Missouri Department of Conservation and ask about areas where they have conducted prescribed burns in recent years. You might also want to pay special attention to the area around trees that have been struck by lightning or seem in poor health.
I find most morels scanning the ground within 10 feet of me. When I spot one, I immediately drop my hat next to it and spend at least 10 minutes minutely examining the surrounding area for more. You do occasionally find a single morel, but more often they occur in groups. I have spent as much as 90 minutes painstakingly examining a 50 x 50 foot area where small, gray morels were growing and come up with several dozen for my trouble.
One thing I do know to a moral certainty is that the best places to find morels are those places where you have found them before. Going back to the sites of previous bonanzas isn’t a sure thing, but it’s as close as I have found. That’s why I will be headed back to the Missouri River bottoms tomorrow.
My favorite way to prepare morels is to soak them in water for a few hours to dislodge debris and insects, then slice them in half longways, dredge them in a mixture of eggs and milk followed by salted flour and fry them in butter until golden brown. They also are excellent served over pasta when sautéed and then stirred together with sautéed onions and heavy cream. Google “morel recipes,” and you will find a world of other recipes.