Wild food is a fantastic treat, and the morel mushrooms (Morchellaceae) are the best of the bunch. They’re highly prized by gourmets and can fetch hundreds of dollars per pound, but know when and where to look, and you can enjoy this luxury at the cost of a day in the woods.
With careful planning, good luck, and a solid idea of what you’re looking for, you can enjoy this spectacularly delicious springtime treat.
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The Magic of Morels
Morel mushrooms are the fruit produced by fungi that live in the soils beneath cool, temperate forests. Their hidden bodies are known as mycelium, and they form a keystone service for the forest. Without the fungi in the soil, leaf litter and fallen dead trees don’t decompose but remain intact instead. These essential forest wardens release the nutrients trapped in the old timbers and leaves, allowing them to return to the soil.
The fungi in the soil also form intimate relationships with the trees above. The trees share sugars they make through photosynthesis, and the fungi supply nutrients and minerals from the soil.
It’s also why you often see morels in areas with disturbed trees. Once the tree becomes stressed, the fungi deep beneath the soil surface will also have a hard time, so it opts to reproduce. If the spores can find the right soil conditions, they’ll establish a new colony and live to fight another day.
If you love morels, you can help them along by carrying your mushrooms in a mesh bag. Not only will debris and bugs fall out of the bag and stay in the forest, but the spores will remain there too. As you move through the forest, you will spread those vital spores and create new hunting grounds. It’s a fair reward for the delicacies they provide us – and a great way to ensure more morels for everyone in years to come.
Potted Exotics Facts: Are Morels Good For You?
Morel mushrooms are one of the most nutrient-dense foraged foods. They are rich in iron, vitamin D, and many other vitamins and minerals. Morels are also abundant in anti-oxidants that can protect the heart and boost the immune system.
What is the Best Soil Temperature for Morel Mushrooms?
Morels appear in a small and secret window when the early spring season creeps into being. Human beings love to work to the calendar, but Mother Nature keeps her own time.
The easiest way for us to know when the time is right is to watch for the ideal soil temperature. Many veteran hunters of edible mushrooms refer to the “magic 50s” when the nighttime soil temperatures ping 50°F or higher for a few nights in a row. These passionate morel hunters will regularly check the average temperatures beneath the soil with a special soil thermometer, so they never miss the change.
An ambient air temperature of 60 degrees Fahrenheit or more helps too. These warm conditions will tell the fungus deep in the soil that the seasons are changing and the time is right for fruiting.
Morels are also very dependent on those moist conditions staying moist. Folk wisdom suggests that a winter of heavy snowfalls and frequent spring rain will promote the growth needed for mushrooms.
Morels really do need both the cool and the damp. Dry conditions will have a negative effect on the mushrooms regardless of the soil temperature. Warm temperatures impede the growth of the mycelium even with good rain. Successful morel mushroom hunting needs all the required conditions in place.
When to Find Morels
The best time of year for the ideal temperatures and conditions depends greatly on your weather patterns and location.
In North America, the southern states see warmer temperatures first, and their morels pop up as early as February. As of publication, mushroom hunters in Georgia are already finding their first of the 2023 morel mushroom season thanks to a statewide warm spell.
Early-season morel hunters in the more central states get looking between late March and early April. The more northerly reaches have a longer wait, typically seeing their first morels as late as May or even June.
Where to Find Morels
Morels are forest mushrooms, by and large. You’ll need to find a cool, moist forest with the correct species of trees. Maples, pines, beeches, oaks, and ash trees are perfect for morel growth. If you can find old apple orchards with the right conditions, it’s worth investigating.
They also prefer some times of soils over others. Rich, loamy soil with lots of organic matter is ideal. They don’t mind sandy soils in a pinch, especially those you might find in gullies or creek beds. So long as it is moist without being sodden and has plenty of decaying leaf litter, it’s a good idea to take a look.
When you reach your hunting ground, look for areas warmed by the new spring sun but sheltered enough to hold moisture well (bright, indirect sunlight is best). Moist soil on south-facing slopes is an excellent place to look during the early season, as are hillsides with a western aspect. Both will be gently warmed by the spring sun but are still sheltered enough to stay damp and cool.
Alternatively, north facing-slopes are a better option when the morel season is coming to an end, although there are no real hard-and-fast rules here.
It’s worth carefully asking around your community too. Most morel species can be found in the same places as in the past year. While many avid morel hunters won’t spill the beans and tell you their best places to hunt, you might find some old timers keen to pass on their wisdom. Who knows? You might learn of secret places that hide the best of the harvest.
How to Spot Morels
Morels don’t advertise their presence, so you really have to look for them.
Look through leaf litter and under trees. The morels and the trees are old friends, so you generally don’t see much of one without the other. Hardwood groves are a great place to start looking. Morels aren’t picky; they’ll grow with elm trees, spruce, and sycamore trees just as readily.
Take a walking stick on your hunt to shift through leaf litter and gently part underbrush. There’s no greater thrill than brushing away some old oak leaves and finding a great morel the size of a soda can just hanging out in the dark. It’ll also be helpful when navigating hillsides or dry creek bottoms.
You’ll also need a sharp paring knife. Cutting the morel at the base will prevent damage to the mycelium beneath the soil. The healthier that mycelium remains, the more morels you’ll see next year. It’s a better idea than just ripping them up and damaging what lies below.
What Do Morels Look Like, and What Do I Need to Avoid?
Morels vary a bit in size, but all share the same characteristic cap. They’re webbed with thick ridges and deep, pronounced holes. It always reminds me of the surface of a well-cooked pancake that’s ready to flip! Others describe it as ‘honeycombed’ or ‘pitted.’
The cap of the mushroom is completely or partially attached to the stalk, which is stout and sturdy. Depending on the species, the cap may be black, yellow, brown, or pale cream, but the stalks tend to be lighter in color. They’re hollow inside and sometimes have pronounced ribs.
The white morel (Morchella americana)is a common and classic example of this type of mushroom. They’re also sometimes called the gray morel as their color ranges from crisp whites and creams to soft oyster gray. They commonly occur under hardwoods, so check out old apple orchards, beech and maple forests, and around oak trees. They pop up around conifers, like white pine trees, from time to time.
The yellow morel (Morchella esculenta) stands out from the crowd with gorgeous golden yellow caps. The color can range from a slightly milky cream right to rich, bright golds. Like the white morel, they have creamy-colored stems. Early in the season, they can be quite diminutive and more gray colored than gold, but given time, they can reach a whopping twelve inches long. They aren’t fussy and can be found with everything from apple trees to pines.
Black morels (Morchella angusticeps, formerly Morchella elata) live up to their name. They have black to dark gray caps, with the more mature mushrooms displaying a darker color. They can reach up to seven inches when mature.
These eerie specimens are often the first morels to pop up once the soil temps are perfect. They love ash, aspen, and cherry trees.
The half-free morel (Morchella punctipes) is the only morel with a cap that is not wholly connected to the stalk. They otherwise resemble a small white morel.
These are rare as they only appear about one year in three. They are often found in the moist leaf litter beneath hickory-oak forests or beech-maple forests.
Burn Site Morels
Burn site morels (Morchella exuberans) are even rarer than the half-free morels. They only pop up in recently burned forest areas, making them quite hard to find. They are dark brown to black in color and are often speckled with ash. They’ll appear the first or second year after a fire.
Some savvy morel hunters check primary industry burn notices in the lead-up to morel season. Once you know where the previous year’s forest fires took place, it makes it significantly easier to find these delectable rarities.
False Morel Mushrooms
Getting the correct identification on your morels is critical for first-time foragers. Two main groups of toxic mushrooms resemble true morels, and they’ll give you real trouble if you eat them by mistake.
The first is the Verpa false morels, especially V. bohemica. They resemble black morels, but the big difference is in the cap. In true black morels, the cap is firmly closed at the bottom and attached to the stalk. In Verpa false morels, the cap is more skirt-like.
The second group of dangerous impostors is the Gyromitra false morels. One of them, Gyromitra esculenta, is often called the beefsteak morel. They have a heavily textured cap in rich browns and reds attached to the stalk at the edge. Their texture is wrinkly and puckered, lacking the true bubbly holes of a true morel.
Never eat a mushroom you are not 100% certain is safe. At best, you may have an upset stomach, and at worst, it could kill you. The best tip for the novice is to leave suspect mushrooms in the forest.
Most Frequently Asked Questions for Morel Mushroom Hunting
Which Month is Best for Morels?
The best month for morels will depend on your location. The largest part of the harvest in North America occurs in the warm days between late April to early June, but southern hunters may see their first morel as early as late February.
The better way to judge is to watch the ground temperature instead of a calendar and head out when the average temperature in the soil reaches the mid-fifties. In Nebraska, the daytime temperatures are perfect close to Mother’s Day, making it a great time for a morel hunting picnic!
How Long Do Fresh Morels Last?
Morels are best eaten promptly after harvest. They perish quickly, even when stored mindfully. The best way to extend their storage time is by keeping them in a paper bag inside your refrigerator, but don’t expect them to last more than a week.
If you have a big harvest, consider drying some for later use. Dried morels remain just as flavorful, but they’ll last for months.
Why are Morels so Hard to Find?
Morels need just the right conditions to fruit. They need cool nights with a stable ambient temperature of around 60 degrees Fahrenheit. They also require the temperature of the soil to sit around the mid-fifties, the ideal temperature to promote the growth of mycelium that produces the mushrooms themselves. These conditions exist only briefly in a few good places for wild mushrooms, making real morels hard to find.
Do I Need to Wash Morels?
Many folks resist washing mushrooms, but for wild foraged ones, it’s a must. The open pits on a morel cap are prone to collecting sand, bugs, dust, bits of leaves – all the sort of things you want to avoid eating. Let them soak in cool, salty water for five minutes, then rinse thoroughly. This should clear the debris and leave them ready for cooking.