In Idaho, beginning in April and continuing on through early summer, one can often find baskets of wild-harvested morel mushrooms for sale in farmers markets and natural grocery stores. For those who have tasted these delicious wild fungi, the opportunity to purchase them right off the shelf with the weekly groceries is a hard one to pass up. However, with prices ranging from $20 to $40 per pound depending on seasonal availability, you might be motivated to see if you can find them yourself, for free. You can! With a few tips, you can join other enthusiasts in a hobby that promotes local eating, exercise, continuing education, and consideration for your local community and environment. Here’s how to get started:
Where to Look
Morels can grow in a frustratingly wide variety of environments, from riverbanks populated with hardwood trees to high-elevation conifer forests where the snowbanks don’t disappear until mid-summer.They can fruit on cinder blocks and in mulched gardens; anywhere the spore falls or is blown and finds friendly conditions. However, by learning not just where they can grow, but also where they are likely to grow, you can increase your chances of success. As a fungus, one of a morel’s main purposes is to decompose dead plant matter. So look for hardwood forests or naturalized areas (such as the edges of a city park or along Boise’s Greenbelt) that have trees with grey or white bark, fallen branches or dying trees, and deep leaf litter off which they can feed. Common deciduous morel hosts are poplar, elm, cottonwood, ash, aspen and birch.
Later in the season, as you travel higher in elevation, begin looking in the mixed conifer forests which can be reached via Forest Service roads. (Motor-vehicle use maps are sometimes available online.) Fir trees, with their very morel-shaped cones, and old-growth spruce are more likely to be associated with this particular fungus than are other conifers, like pines. However, any seasoned morel hunter will tell you that morels grow where they like and there are certainly exceptions to any morel-hunting “rule.” These may be caused by micro-climates, (a shady pine next to an underground spring in a dry year), a natural event such as a wildfire, or perhaps just the fun-loving and perverse nature of the Morchella sp. (species).
In addition to looking in deep-litter or mossy regions of the forest, be sure to pay attention to areas of recently disturbed earth such as along hiking and game trails, logging roads, campsites, and even in deep footprints. Unusually large quantities of morels are often found in the spring after a forest has burned in a wildfire. This “flush”, or growth, may continue in the area for several years, decreasing somewhat each spring. If you do hunt in burned areas, be sure to prepare for harsh, dirty conditions and check with the Forest Service in charge of that area, as free personal-use permits may be required. Being caught harvesting without a permit in this situation could mean incurring a hefty fine and having your hard-earned mushrooms confiscated.
When to Look
Morels start fruiting in early spring at low elevations. Begin checking areas with likely trees and conditions as soon as the location has been about a week without a hard frost and the daytime temperatures are in the upper 50s to lower 60s F. The flush of morels will then follow the spring conditions up in elevation as the year progresses. Depending on winter snow pack and spring rains, morels can be found well into the summer months up to elevations of 7000′ or more. Generally, after an area has had several days of 80 degree weather the main harvesting season is over, though you may find isolated pockets where conditions have remained cool and moist enough to support a few.
When You (Think You) Find a Morel
Morels are one of the easiest mushrooms to positively identify once you learn a few distinctive features. Only morels will satisfy the following three criteria: They are hollow-stemmed, spring-fruiting, and have deep pits and ridges. They can be distinguished from the look-alike species, Verpa bohemica, or Verpa conica, by slicing in half from tip to stump. A morel is hollow inside, and the “cap” will be fully attached to the stipe (or stem) at its base. In Verpa sp., the cap is only attached at the top, and may be easily separated from the stipe. Its stem may also be filled with a cottony material.
Another potential look-alike – Gyromitra sp. – may be eliminated in a similar manner. These fungi range from rusty-orange to purple in color with many folds, (like a brain), but not pits. When cut in half, the folds often continue throughout the mushroom, distinguishing it from the morel, which is hollow throughout.
To harvest a morel, slice or pinch it gently at the base, above the dirt line, and place it in either a mesh collection bag, or a woven basket. This avoids unnecessarily disturbing the area were the mushrooms are growing, and allows the mushrooms to continue to spread spores throughout the forest as you walk around collecting.
Identifying morels is relatively simple. However, one should never consume any food without knowing for certain what it is. Experts from local mycological associations, universities or extensions are often willing to help you identify your treasures. Once you have had this done a time or two and you have seen and handled the look-alikes in person, morels, even with their varied colors and shapes, are very difficult to mistake.
It’s quite possible that your first batch of morels will be the gateway to a new hobby. The kingdom of fungi comprises many fascinating subjects and, now that you’re paying attention to the ground and shuffling through duff, you’re going to meet many more of them. By joining a mycological society, or a group interested in local food foraging, you will improve not only your ability to find morels and other edibles, but also your awareness of the amazing and critical contributions fungi make to our planet.
For further reading:
North American Mushrooms: A Field Guide to Edible and Inedible Fungi, by Orson Miller and Hope Miller
Mushrooms of the Pacific Northwest, by Joe Ammirati and Steve Trudell
All That the Rain Promises and More, by David Aurora