Morel Tales to Tell a Spring Story

  • Mushroom season is almost here.
  • It’s likely to be earlier than usual.
  • But if you are still seeing these flowers, it’s probably not here yet.
Prospects for finding morels aren’t great, while Dutchman’s Breeches remain dewy fresh.  Jim Low Photo

By Jim Low

Mushroom season is almost here, and as usual, I got the itch to hunt for them weeks ahead of their appearance.  My rational side told me that the last week of March is ridiculously early to hope to find the big yellow morels that haunt my vernal dreams.  But, as usual, Excitable Me overruled Rational Me.

In defense of Excitable Me, this year has provided extra reasons for jumping the gun.  For one thing, we had weeks of April weather in February and early March.  On top of that, I heard some credible reports of people finding morels a few weeks ago.  I got seriously itchy feet when the mercury topped 85 degrees on several days.  All it took to push me over the edge was the 2 inches of rain that fell Friday and Saturday.  I was out the door early Sunday morning to beat others to my favorite “shrooming” grounds in the Missouri River bottoms.

The temperature hovered around 50 degrees, and low, dense clouds held the promise of more rain.  Those conditions were nearly identical to the day last spring when I found a small bonanza of plump, succulent yellow morels and a scattering of little grays.  Heading out the door, I could practically smell them sizzling in the skillet.  I was sure this was my lucky day.

This unopened Trillium flower was trying to tell me something, it’s too early.  Jim Low Photo

The only footprints I found in “my” morel hot spot on public land belonged to white-tailed deer.  Great!  My early start had put me ahead of the competition.  Many of my would-be rivals no doubt still sat in uncomfortable church pews, while I strolled through a cathedral of towering oaks and maples.  But as I scanned leaf-littered bottoms, I recognized some not-so-encouraging signs.

Adam-and-Eve Orchid is the only plant that I have absolutely come to associate with morel patches.  Jim Low Photo

First was the fact that Dutchman’s Breeches and Toothwort were everywhere.  These delicate plants generally follow close on the heels of Hepatica, the earliest of Missouri’s spring blossoms.  They generally are on their way out by the time I find morels.  My optimism mushroomed temporarily when I began noticing Trillium and May Apple.  These two wildflowers have been associated with past morel finds, but as I continued walking I realized that these were the first of their kind to sprout.  None of the Trillium blossoms were open and the May Apples weren’t even showing flower buds.  By the time I find morels, these plants are in full bloom and stand 12 to 18 inches tall.  These had only poked their heads three or four inches above the leaf litter.

These May Apples hadn’t even unfolded their umbrellas on Sunday.  Jim Low Photo

Sweet William is another wildflower I associate with morel season.  This wild version of garden phlox grows in luxuriant stands when I’m finding morels, but on Sunday morning, I saw only one.  It was still shorter than a big morel and all but a couple of its blossoms were wrapped tight as cigars against the morning chill. 

With flagging confidence, I headed for the spot that produced last year’s bounty and that has been a reliable morel producer year in and year out.  The distinctive, striated leaves of Adam-and-Eve orchids greeted me, proving that the creek bottom’s loamy soil was healthy as ever.  My most productive morel patches all support this plant, also known as putty root.  But today, Adam and Eve had no delectable company.  I finally had to admit that I’d jumped the gun again, but I continued to hold out hope for finding a handful of small but delicious early gray morels.

Most of the blossoms on this Sweet William plant were shut tight against the early-morning chill.  Jim Low Photo

I’m sure that someone somewhere in Missouri found mushrooms that morning.  Sadly, that person was not me and as I trudged homeward, I began to dread the hopeful query that would greet my return: “Did you find any!?” To redeem myself, I stopped at Central Dairy, a Jefferson City institution, and bought ice cream.  That and a brisk hike with a sound track provided by cardinals and titmice, is reward enough for the time being.  I will watch the wildflowers around the house in the coming weeks.  When the Sweet William brushes my knees, I’ll pull on my hiking boots and stuff my pockets with plastic grocery bags, sure as ever that this is my day.

I’d advise you to do the same.  It’s spring!